It’s certainly a mistake to read a newspaper while at the beach; sea breezes whirl the pages away, creating a nuisance, and—even worse—my mind is whirled away from the beautiful long empty stretches of sand and water here at Truro’s Ballston Beach. A fifty dollar parking sticker is required to park at this beach for one week, but the money goes to the town of Truro, and the privilege of being on a nearly empty North Atlantic beach is worth the price.
But, being a newspaper hound from way back and still not firmly committed to the digital version, I couldn’t resist picking up last Sunday’s New York Times’ Book Review, one of the few review sections left, to see what my fellow writers are doing.
I had already been for a walk on Ballston Beach and noticed that there are no more shells or even shards of shells. The surf always broke up a lot of what it deposited at the tideline, but now even those bits and pieces are gone. We know why. The pristine beach and water may disguise what is happening to the ocean, but the empty sands tell the story. One small partly dismembered crab was all that was left of what was once a treasury of starfish, horseshoe crabs, sand dollars (my father offered a dollar for the first sand dollar one of us found) and the tiny golden shells whose name I’ve forgotten that we called fingernails because that’s what they looked like.
All gone. The children trudging to the beach this morning won’t know what they are missing, including the little boy’s joy—turning horseshoe crabs on their backs and filling the feebly waving legs with sand.
After reading the Times’ reviews, I’m wondering if, as I have suspected, we women writers are also endangered, in a novel way.
Studies have been published announcing the obvious: books by women, and reviews by women, are much less often published, at least in the few print outlets, than men’s. This has been a problem for a long time; recently someone found that the venerable New York Review of Books, whose birth I was peripherally involved in but which has never reviewed my books, publishes only twenty percent of its reviews of books by women.
The New York Times seems to have tried, recently, to right this balance. I noticed in this most recent issue—and I have a hunch this would be proved in other issues as well—that an amazing sixteen reviews of books by women were presented out of a total of twenty-three reviews. And fifteen of the reviews were written by women.
This seems to prove that the editors are making a brave attempt to change the numbers. But something else is noticeable, too: nine of the book jacket photos printed with the reviews were of remarkably pretty young women (some probably taken years earlier) while only two were of women clearly over fifty. The few book jacket photos of men were taken from a distance; Jay McInerney’s over-forty close up was the exception. He shows a bit of gray hair, but he is quite cute.
The wonderful Joy Williams, exuberant and expressive, is the great exception; I remember first finding her short stories when teaching a Freshman English class years ago. She is perhaps too well known now to be represented by a younger face.
We have all known forever that publishers want young pictures of women writers for book jackets and reviews, and many of us, including me, have from time to time succumbed. But what does this say about our ability, as we come into our full power, to be published at all?
Recently I’ve learned of the fate of two non-fiction books by young women friends of mine, both published by major publishers who then have done little or nothing to promote them; that is now the task of the writers, in addition to accepting usually tiny advance. Even more alarming, though, than the lack of promotion is that the editors at these houses insisted on each of these writers removing, or severely curtailing, her voice; as a result, the books are largely anodyne interviews and research that show no particular point of view.
Even journalists have long ago admitted that there is really no such thing as objectivity, and that telling both sides of a story leads to a boring, and unconvincing, neutrality; yet this attempt to curtail women writers’ voices seems to suggest the outdated notion that there is such a thing as “objectivity” in non-fiction.
We have usually been granted a little more leeway when writing fiction and poetry, traditionally defined as what we both write and read, but now that we have distinguished women biographers and historians, coming into their full power in middle age, we must wonder whether the emphasis on pretty faces means that the publishers do not accept our authority.
Women who try to survive on advances are few, but all of us believe that “the laborer is worthy of her hire,” especially when a full-length work of non-fiction may require five years of unpaid research and writing. No other business could get away with exploiting its workers to this degree, except perhaps in the so-called entertainment business where waiters have to try to survive on tips. And the publishers’ stinginess also means we miss the voices and points of view of working class writers who need to be paid a living wage for five years of labor.
But it is almost impossible to exist as a writer if one is not published, and so the exploitation and the dismembered work by women continues.
I’m beginning to believe the small press, or even self-publishing, are the only ways to go. We have to do all the work of selling our books anyway, and the editors at small presses are at least possibly less frightened by the authority of older women. They often don’t pay advances, or royalties—Sunstone Press in Santa Fe is the noble exception—but the money involved never did much to pay the bills anyway.
Above all, we must preserve the unique quality of our voices.