“Women run publishing, really”

Gina Frangello and Zoe Zolbrod are two important writers in Chicago’s publishing scene, and people I’ve crossed paths with more than once over the years. Friends themselves, Zolbrod here interviews Frangello about why they write, about how people they know respond to what they write, and about what Zolbrod calls the “ongoing conversation about women writers’ representation on tastemakers lists…and in prestigious venues such as the New York Times.” Frangello responded with of one of the best straightforward dissections I’ve seen of the role women themselves play in perpetuating this disparity:

The ironic thing is that women run publishing, really. Most agents, publicists and editors are female—in overwhelming numbers. Women don’t run the media—a long way from it—so we may not be as in control of what books are assigned for review at the NYT, or to whom they’re assigned, and some of that is still a very male game. But women to some extent have ourselves to thank for the channeling of female writers into limiting categories like “chick lit” or “confessional memoirs” or endless diet or dating books. We are the ones who are writing these books, publishing them, and choosing how they are marketed. We are also the ones buying and consuming certain types of books overwhelmingly more so than other books, because women read in far higher numbers than men. So I’m afraid this is not a situation where women can cleanly point a finger at the male power hierarchy and say, “Look what they’re doing!” Where that hierarchy exists, it is doing some damage…but in other arenas, where women are running things, I still see a big failure in the literary culture in embracing “serious” books by women in greater numbers, or mismarketing literary titles as “women’s fiction” in an effort to sell more copies in the superstores or through female-centric book clubs, where the money is.

Frangello goes on to assert that yes, sexism still exists (no argument here), but concludes, “women ourselves need to take the reins…and really shape what the future will look like—we are not powerless, but thus far we have not always been our own best advocates in publishing.” I agree–in fact, I think women alone, regardless of what any men do or don’t do, have the power, influence, and sheer market numbers to reshape publishing. To a certain extent, though, they already have–all those women agents, publicists, editors, and writers are earning livelihoods based in part on appealing to the women readers who buy their books. But is the aim to keep the business flourishing, or to cultivate a greater awareness of women’s cultural merit? And need these two distinctions be mutually exclusive?

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