The nonprofit organization VIDA keeps a count of how many books written by women are reviewed in literary sections, and how many reviewers are female. Every year until 2017, its most recent survey, VIDA has found that male writers and male reviewers dominate books coverage, even though women make up the majority of authors and readers. To understand the backlash to Ebel’s description of Rooney, flip the genders: Imagine if the review pages were dominated by women writing about women, interspersed with the occasional mention of a young male writer, commended for his strong jawline or “sensuous lips.” How amazing that he writes so well about the slave trade, when he could be a model!
Rooney’s youth makes her a particular target for this type of dismissal. Shafak told me that male critics in her native Turkey would refer to her as their “daughter” in reviews: “The critic and I might even be the same age, but because he is a man, he thinks he’s somewhere above [me].” Ebel’s assessment—in translation—appears similarly patronizing. (Ebel did not immediately respond to a request for comment submitted to Tages-Anzeiger, the Swiss newspaper that published his article.) Rooney’s book is “absolutely worth reading,” he writes, but sometimes seems like the “twinkling of a twentysomething on a train.” Funny story: When a 20-something Martin Amis published The Rachel Papers, in 1973, the author’s youth was considered an asset. “In a patriarchy, a woman writer will be respected only when she is ‘old’ in the eyes of the society, only when she is defeminized, desexualized,” Shafak said.
Read: The small rebellions of Sally Rooney’s Normal People
There is anecdotal evidence that gender affects every step of the publishing process. In 2015, Catherine Nichols submitted proposals for a novel to agents and publishers under both her own name and a “homme de plume.” Her male alter ego, George, received far more interest: His manuscript was requested 17 times, compared with two for hers.
The tone of the responses was also different. “Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me,” Nichols wrote. “George’s work was ‘clever,’ it’s ‘well-constructed’ and ‘exciting.’” These replies were not, Nichols argued, simply due to unconscious bias, but a reflection of the reality of the marketplace. Agents probably knew that George’s book would be easier to advertise and more likely to get reviewed. When George wrote about a female protagonist, it was edgy; when Catherine did so, it was “women’s fiction.”
The dismissiveness woven into that label—when do we ever talk about “men’s fiction”?—is part of a pattern of associating female writers with the personal, the domestic, the emotional, the subjective, and using that to diminish them. In an essay for LitHub, Siri Hustvedt wrote about Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author of a multipart memoir that chronicles his home life in punishing detail. How would such a work be received if written by a woman—a housewife complaining about child care? “No matter how artistic, the hypothetical Olivia Krauss, writing the same work would never have been taken as seriously,” Hustvedt wrote. “In fact, Olivia Krauss would disappear.”