Gender and Fiction: A Turning Point in the 21st Century?

Gender and Fiction: A Panel Discussion

When the board of the Modern Library of America named the 100 best novels of the 20th century, its list featured 91 novels by men and 9 by women. Gish Jen ’77, BI ’87, RI ’02, the author of six books— including the recent Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self—noted this fact at the start of the Radcliffe Day panel “Gender and the Business of Fiction,” which she moderated.

Women writers also face an uphill battle in the magazine world. According to slides Jen showed from VIDA (, an organization that’s been tracking the number of male and female bylines in literary magazines since 2009, the New York Times Book Review has improved under editor Pamela Paul, with 55 percent male bylines, and the Paris Review published more women than men in 2013, with bylines by 48 women and 47 men. Meanwhile, 80 percent of writers at the New York Review of Books were men that year.

"Gender and the Business of Fiction" panelists, from left: Claire Messud RI '05; Gish Jen '77, BI '87, RI '02; Ann Hulbert '77; and Elisabeth Schmitz '86. Photo by Webb Chappell"Gender and the Business of Fiction" panelists, from left: Claire Messud RI '05; Gish Jen '77, BI '87, RI '02; Ann Hulbert '77; and Elisabeth Schmitz '86. Photo by Webb Chappell

Women Prizewinners in Fiction

Panelist Elisabeth Schmitz ’86, the vice president and editorial director of Grove Atlantic, said that during her 25 years in the publishing industry, her biggest challenge has been how to sell literary books. Famously, her first acquisition was the award-winning novel Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. Although she hasn’t taken gender into account when acquiring books, she has acquired twice as many women writers as men. Her firm, however, has published 86 male fiction writers and 56 female fiction writers; among its memoir authors, 14 are male and 9 are female.

Schmitz pointed out that the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the two most prominent daily reviewers of fiction at the Times are women. “Women this year won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, and the Booker Prize,” she said. “Although the National Book Award went to a man this year, the last three went to women.”

“I do think we’ve reached a turning point in the 21st century,” she said, “even though having women in leadership positions doesn’t necessarily ensure change.”

Progress for Women in Fiction; Disparities in Nonfiction

Panelist Ann Hulbert ’77, the books and culture editor at the Atlantic and the author of two books, including a biography of the fiction writer Jean Stafford, said she’s optimistic about women in fiction, but less hopeful about women as writers and reviewers of nonfiction. In fiction, she said, there’s been “a marked improvement” on the late-20th-century count that Francine Prose ’68 did in her 1998 Harper’s piece titled “The Scent of a Woman’s Ink.” Since 2000, however, only 9 out of 39 winners of the Pulitzer Prizes in nonfiction categories and only 4 out of 14 of the nonfiction National Book Award winners, have been women.

Hulbert said that in her work at the Atlantic, she tries to get more women into the mix. “When it comes to adding wonderful women writers, it’s never too late,” she said. “And for me, it couldn’t be more exciting.”

Forging Our Own Canon

Claire Messud RI ’05, author of The Woman Upstairs and The Emperor Children, said that although 80 percent of fiction readers are female, “the tastemakers, our critics, remain chiefly male.” Since the canon has remained male, she said, “We need to forge or simply retrieve our own canon.”

Messud listed the women writers she was raised on—including Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Mavis Gallant, and Alice Munro—and said that among the living writers whose work interests her the most, the majority are women. “I pass discoveries on to friends like precious contraband,” she said. “And when the world recognizes them, too, I rejoice. But I don’t wait for it to happen.”

Messud exhorted the audience to read more, recommend more, and share more. “We are the readers,” she said. “We have the writers. We’re no longer as insistently financially subservient as once we were. We can claim what we like.”

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