A couple days ago writer (and blogger extraordinaire) Sandra Seamans wrote a short essay called “Head Banging Rant” about two issues. She called it a rant. I call it thought provoking. From her post:
Why is it that most writers only want to discuss ( bsp – promote ) their own work? Are we that jealous of other writers that we refuse to say in a public forum, “Hey, here’s a great short story, you should go read it, like right now!” Or do they not read short stories and only use their own short story work to promote their novels?
And why is that when a new crime imprint opens shop there are no women writers included in that long list of writers they’ve signed on?
I was going to comment on her blog, but after I thought about it I realized what I had to say was probably too much for a single comment. I’m going to talk about the second point first, at least as it relates to reading women writers. A couple years ago a friend of mine asked if I read very many female writers. At the time I paused and realized that, with only a couple exceptions, I really didn’t. It wasn’t anything conscious; I certainly wasn’t avoiding them, but I wasn’t making any special effort to read them either. So I made a point to start doing so. When I thought to respond to Sandra’s essay, I planned to pat myself on the back by saying, “Why yes, Sandra, I read a lot of women writers.” Analyzing the data, though, does not back that statement up.
So far this year I’ve read 90 books. If I break that number down to the number of writers I’ve read, it amounts to 69 (because I’ve read multiple books from several writers). Of those 69 writers, only 11 of them are women. Which amounts to roughly 16%. Here is that list of authors (those in bold are nonfiction, the others are fiction):
- Megan Abbott
- Dani Amore
- Rachel Brady
- Bonnie Jo Campbell
- Susan Casey
- Elisabeth Eaves
- Christa Faust
- Sara Gran
- Terry James
- Sophie Littlefield
- Rebecca Solnit
That percentage is pathetic. I have a couple more in my TBR queue (and one in process, Patti Abbott’s excellent Monkey Justice collection), but even so — 16%? Measly! There are certainly plenty of women writing out there . . . but to Sandra’s point, I don’t think they are as visible unless one actively seeks them out. And it also makes me realize that if a guy like me, who (wrongly) thinks he reads his share, I wonder how many folks read an even lower percentage. I wonder how many choose not to read women at all. They are out there, and that is unfortunate. And I don’t buy this bullshit line I’ve often heard, “I can tell it’s a woman writer just by reading it, even if I don’t already know it’s a woman.” I’ve heard the same thing said about guitarists/drummers/etc. too. Never mind the double standard when it comes to evaluating women writers, something I saw a lot of when browsing through the Amazon reviews of Elisabeth Eaves’ Wanderlust (in a nutshell, it’s okay for young male travelers to indulge themselves sexually white exploring the world, but heaven forbid a woman do it). It’s ridiculous, and I think Sandra’s point is well made. I know I am going to work harder at doing my part.
Now back to Sandra’s initial point, the promotion of other people’s work. I’ll be honest: I write short stories as much for getting my name out there in service of future novels as I do just because I want to be “a short story writer.” Hell, it was only a couple years ago that I even started reading short stories, let alone writing them. Yes, they are a great challenge for a writer, and yes I enjoy them. But I’d much rather write novels. That’s where my heart lies. Short stories are great for learning economy of words, exploring characters, and having work out that can be read quickly. If I could do only one, though, I’d write novels. Thankfully I don’t need to make that choice.
I read a lot of work from people I know from various online sources — Twitter, Facebook, etc. There are piles of first novels coming out, tons of short story collections, etc. Everything I read I review with a brief paragraph or two on Amazon as well as Goodreads. If it’s work I really like, I’ll even mention it here. Sometimes at length. I don’t think it’s expected (though the nudge to review on the various sites is becoming more and more of an expectation than a courtesy), but I do it because I know it helps. We are all in this together, right? It was the same way in the underground music communities I used to frequent (and being a music reviewer is how I met my wife, Julia). But I don’t consider myself a “book reviewer” either. However, more and more I’m getting requests for it. Recently I received four e-books in my email with a request to review them. It read like a bulk press release. My initial reaction was one of discomfort. I’m a writer, not a reviewer. I’d rather choose the stuff I want to read (i.e. buy) and review accordingly. Reviewing is something I do hand-in-hand with my reading choices to give back a little, but I am a little uncomfortable with the latest request. What are the expectations among fellow writers, and where is the line between “supporting the scene” and being taken advantage of? That’s something every writer needs to decide for themselves, I guess. It’s like blurbing books as a mid-list writer. You can’t expect others to blurb your work if you don’t pay it forward. Artists may be flakey as hell, but they have looooong memories for even the barest hint of a perceived slight.
I think the most staggering contributor to all this sour grapey-sounding stuff is the sheer volume of material coming out, especially with e-books. The volume of releases, and the subsequent wave of promotion of those releases, is overwhelming. I find it a little off putting, which makes me loathe to promote my own work (even though I do it, especially here). I know the sales have stalled (at a pretty paltry level, frankly) of the most recent collection I was part of, Pulp Modern. Looking at it on Amazon, there are seven reviews, half of which were posted by contributors (including yours truly). To those who have purchased it, THANK YOU SO MUCH. Even more, if you reviewed it on Amazon, you have my MASSIVELY HUGE appreciation. But I guarantee you that, like me, many of these contributors have written tons of reviews and plugged scores of releases from other struggling indie writers (because that’s what most of us truly are) that haven’t given this thing a second look. Does that suck? Yeah, but it’s not surprising. There is just a ton of stuff out there, and one can’t possibly see, buy, or read it all. Not even close. But it’s a little disappointing to see only three or four reviews from our peers.
Pulp Modern would probably do better as an e-book, who knows. Considering there are so many titles available for .99 electronically, who is going to pay $10 to take a chance on an actual book? Changing that would make it part of a different problem, though. There is a glut of .99 e-books out there. I buy a lot of them, though my pace is slowing. I read a lot of them too, but have probably purchased more than I’ll ever read. I bought two this week I don’t know when, or if, I’ll ever read. Not only that, but a couple writers I like have put new stuff out at that price point, and I don’t know if I am going to even pick them up because I already have too friggin’ many. As for the four e-books sent to me: am I obligated to read them in order to do my part, when there are so many others I already have I haven’t read? If I don’t, will those writers sending them to me file me away as someone not to be counted on, thereby potentially limiting some of the options for my own writing? It’s madness, I say!
What I struggle with the most is feeling that more and more it seems writers are creating a very low value for our work by putting our stuff out for only .99. A short collection of a few thousand words, okay, that’s fair. But entire novels? I have to say my gut tells me we are screwing ourselves. Creating a lowball market we will ultimately regret. I’ve heard arguments in favor of the price tag, I just don’t know that I buy them. Writing is a huge labor of time and sweat. I keep arguing with myself whether or not I am doing more to hurt my peers buying at that price than I am helping them. It’s a struggle. It was the same in music, only there illegal downloading and file sharing was so rampant that pausing to consider it was about enough to make one, if not homicidal, at least suicidal. Fucking music thief bastards. . . .
It really bums me out that art has such a low value. Our couch potato culture is utterly entertainment-driven, yet the people who do so much to create that entertainment really don’t get shit for it. Whether it’s someone not wanting to pay even $5 for a book, e-book or traditional, for something that took months out of the writer’s life, or some jackass complaining about a $3 cover to see live music, it is an issue close to my heart that fills me with rage. It’s frustrating, disappointing, and soul crushing.
So what are we going to do as artists? Quit creating? Not likely. Labor in obscurity? Yeah, probably. I don’t see quitting my day job anytime soon, that’s for damn sure.