by Gina Burgess
In 1998 Harper’s published an essay by Francine Prose called Scent of a Woman’s Ink. In it she expounds on the disparity of publishers’ perception between women’s writing and men’s writing. She suggests that it is the male readers who don’t precisely align with metaphors that women use – house, garden, madness – or that women tell us things we don’t want to hear. Or, perhaps, it is that women writers just don’t write anything important. That was 20 years ago. Have things changed since then?
Maybe not as much as we’d like to think. In 2015, Catherine Nichols sent out 50 queries under her own name (completely acceptable) and 50 queries under George’s name (skating on the edge of acceptable). All totaled, George received 17 requests for the manuscript, but Catherine only receive two. That means that George was an eight-times better writer than Catherine, or rather, that was the perception of the agents queried. “My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine,” she said.
All this was after her writer friends had sent her manuscript to their own agents extolling the work. The rejections all mentioned the wonderful writing, but no real, coherent problem with the book were outlined.
The rejection letters written to George were full of constructive comments, and no one said anything about the main character not being “feisty.” They used words such as “clever,” “well-constructed,” and “exciting.”
The problem is that when writers receive these rejection letters that use words such as “dislikable” and “not very plucky,” or a yawning silence returns, the whole can affect the writer’s self-confidence. And it doesn’t have to be that way.
Is it really a gender problem? Back in 1870s, George Eliot must have thought so. Her real name was Mary Ann. And George Sand must have as well. She was known as Lucille as a little girl. And A. M. Bernard was really Louisa May Alcott.
Let’s not forget that many male authors wrote under pseudonyms as well: Mark Twain, George Orwell, Lewis Carroll. Publishers thought no respecting reader could possible swallow how prolific a writer Dean Koontz was so he published under three pseudonyms so he could publish four books per year.
But getting back to why women have assumed obvious male names. This apparent publishing industry bias comes from agents and publishers both male and female. It is geared toward both male and female writers if they are not famous people who do famous things, or who don’t have thousands of dollars of book sales, or who don’t (or can’t) market themselves and their books.
As I see it, it isn’t wholly a gender problem.
Catherine Nichols raises some good questions. Is it unconscious bias? Is it a conditioning that people in the industry consciously or unconsciously absorb from their industry mentors?
I have a few myself. Is this truly a pervasive bias that insidiously works its way into the fibers of not only newbie authors, but also chips away at the mental health of veteran authors? Do we authors allow someone else’s considered, or perhaps not so considered, opinion to affect our thinking?
I had this bias myself mores the shame. I was so wrong. It was not gender related. It was newbie writer and debut author related. More than a decade ago, I cannot tell you how many struggling-to-be-noticed debut authors I quashed with my harsh criticism in reviews and manuscript critiques. “I didn’t know,” should never be an excuse. I should have known because I suffered from that yawning silence and those harsh rejection letters. I suffered zero encouraging words. I even paid $400 for a critique that was so discouraging, I set the whole thing so far aside I still don’t know where that manuscript is. But I learned from that. While working for seven of the most taxing and exacting employers (local government board members), I learned how debilitating discouragement is. While working for a chamber of commerce, I learned how a bruised and aching soul responds to zero encouragement after putting heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into various projects.
Rejection is hard to take even when it is served warm and friendly with good constructive advice. Rejection is worse when dished up like cold oatmeal. There is also something to be said about the gushing review that just retells the story, but has no meat that addresses why the story is good. How do authors learn from that? Is there a happy medium somewhere?
There is always something worthy in a manuscript. Out of the hundreds of books I have critiqued and/or edited, I’ve only read one that was unsalvageable, and that was because it was completely incoherent. The person must have just drained a fifth of Jack Daniels… in the space of a couple of hours not days. Nothing exactly wrong with consuming alcohol while writing, but sobriety does lead to coherency.
What’s a writer to do?
Alice Walker’s manuscript in 1981, The Color Purple, was rejected because she used too many exclamation points. In 1928, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, was rejected because he referred to Youngling Beer too many times. In 1953, J. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was rejected because the entire novel is in quotes and is attributed to “some old dumbass in a porta-potty somewhere.” You can read the rest of these rejection letters here.
Acceptance and rejection are purely matters of opinion. Remember one young writer’s experience when she copy/pasted one of Jane Austin’s books into manuscript form and sent it to an agent. She promptly got a rejection letter, but not that the book was classic Jane Austin, nor a reprimand for plagiarism. No, the manuscript was too staid and old-fashioned. That manuscript would never sell. Insert a shocked expression here.
That is why we should choose the agents we send our work to carefully. There is a website that lists which agents represent which famous authors. That gives a legitimacy to the agents, and it helps you understand what genre and type of writing the agents are looking to represent. Check out Query Tracker.
For those who are already published and already have some reviews, check out the reviewer who explains why they like or dislike your book. Ask them if they’d like to be one of your beta readers, but explain to them exactly what responsibility a beta reader has. Or send them links to Can Beta Readers Replace Editors? and Meet Your New Best Friends: Critique Partners and Beta Readers.
What in the world does this have to do with publishing industry bias?
Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and since acceptance and rejection are matters of opinion, why not submit the best possible manuscript anyway? Take to heart the encouraging words from a developmental editor, a beta reader, a reviewer. That means constructive criticism is necessary. You need someone to see the big picture and make sure it makes sense. You need someone who will tell you honestly if something in your book might be too offensive. You need someone to tell you what is working and what needs some work. Developmental/substantive editors are an investment, but well worth the cost. They are professionals, and they will catch a multitude of things that the non-professionals won’t. Beta readers are a second best necessity for suggestions on the coherency of your work. Reviewers are priceless, but come after your work is ready to be published or is already published.
Never take rejection personally. If you believe in your work, and your development editor and/or beta readers agree with you that it is a worthy manuscript, don’t stop at the 75th rejection. Keep on.
Or, publish it yourself.