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Jane Ahlin, Published January 25 2014

Ahlin: Year of the woman writer churns out ‘mommy porn’

The movie industry long has been criticized for gender imbalance: writers, directors, producers and even actors are predominantly male. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that the same problem exists in the literary community. But it does. Before getting into that, however, here’s a question: What writer made $95 million in 2012, surpassing the money made by any other author in the world?

The answer leaves book lovers wondering whether to laugh or cry because it is E.L. James. Yes indeed, James is the middle-aged British woman – long-married mother of two teenage sons – who wrote the erotic “Fifty Shades” trilogy. What makes the success of the “mommy-porn” books both amusing and appalling is that even the kindest critic has not suggested the writing is good; in fact, most panned it (think scintillating sex, not scintillating prose). When Publisher’s Weekly named James “Person of the Year” for 2012, the literary world went apoplectic.

Whether that means there is no accounting for the taste of readers or a fresh take on steamy sex is a sure-seller, the one point undisputed is the incredible amount of money James has raked in. Certainly, she didn’t have to write serious fiction to make serious money.

Of course, in 2012, three of the top five earners in the book business were women: E.L. James, Suzanne Collins (“Hunger Games”) and Danielle Steel (prolific writer of romances). As it turns out, five of the top eight earners were women. Janet Evanovich (Stephanie Plum mysteries) and Nora Roberts (another prolific author of romances) came in at No. 7 and No. 8. The men in the top eight were James Patterson (prolific writer of thrillers), Bill O’Reilly (“Killing” history books co-authored with Martin Dugard) and Jeff Kinney (“Wimpy Kid” books for children).

No question, when it comes to mass-market books, women write every bit as successfully as men. That’s why the statistics compiled by VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) are so surprising. As an article in the Christian Science Monitor put it, “For the past three years, Vida … has been conducting a count of how many books reviewed by prominent publications were written by women and the results have been dispiriting.”

Talk about an understatement. For both Harpers and The New Republic in 2012, “90 percent of book reviewers were male” and “five times as many books by male authors as female authors” were reviewed. For the New York Review of Books, “roughly 18 percent of reviewers were women and 22 percent of books reviewed were written by women. …” Even those publications with better comparative numbers didn’t show the percentage of female reviewers or the percentage of books by females reviewed to top 30 percent.

The Christian Science Monitor article insisted, “[I]f 2013 was the year of recognizing male bias in literature, then 2014 is the year of recognizing great women writers.”

Well, don’t hold your breath. Good intentions count; yet, experience suggests the rigidity of old habits dies hard. And male critics primarily reviewing male authors is longstanding habit every bit as resistant to change as the boardrooms of corporate America.

In an article for Slate, Meghan O’Rourke pointed out that before “blind auditions … fewer than five percent of players in major American symphonies were women.” The percentage “soared almost tenfold” when blind auditions became the norm. Books are different; it’s hard to find a “rational, empirical way” to erase bias, although equal numbers of male and female critics would be a good place to start.

In the mass marketplace, we see books by women compete well, often outselling their male counterparts. It follows that, given attention, their books of literary significance would, too.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.