A Solution for Female Writers

Female novelists seem to be having a rough time of it in the English speaking world. Not only are books written by women writers under represented in the publishing world, but according to organizations like VIDA, they are also under-reviewed, under-promoted, under-appreciated, and under-taught.

Now, to be fair, if you take a sampling of books written in, say, the past one hundred years, of course you will find the landscape thoroughly male dominated because, let’s face it, feminism in the U.S. did not really kick in until at least the 1970’s. Even women’s magazines ran articles like The Good Wife’s Guide and actively participated in the indoctrination of women to become docile house servants to their husbands. (The Good Wife’s Guide is said to be a fabrication, but it is only a hybrid and condensation of numerous similar articles that actually were published around the 1950’s.) So it should come as no surprise that novels written in the 20th century can only be construed as sexist when seen through the sensibilities of the 21st. So, pardon me if I take the liberty of limiting the discussion to the world of 2010 and later.

There is considerably less excuse, in the post 2010 world, that the literary scene should be dominated by men, both actual and fictional. And yet female protagonists are still outnumbered by male protagonists, and when you find one, the chances are the protagonist is much more likely to be looking for romance than trying to take down an evil empire. And when you do find female protagonists who are looking for bigger goals than hitching up with an ideal man, the book is much less likely to receive literary acclaim. And a writer is more likely to be represented if the manuscript had a masculine name attached to it. The last would have been funny if it had not been so tragic. A female writer named Catherine Nichols actually sent out queries of a manuscript to agents in a social experiment. Although the queries were mostly unanswered or rejected when the author was “Catherine”, they were accepted with great enthusiasm when the author was “George”. You could not make this stuff up.

Some of the remedies suggested by women to reverse this trend may sound somewhat extreme. Enraged that silly pirate books by men were getting more attention and better reviews than serious literary works by women, a writer named Eva Jurczyk declared that she would not review any more books written by men. A writer named Rebecca Solnit, enraged by a male dominated reading list on the Esquire magazine, declared them (humorously she says) to be 80 books no woman should read.

The frustration is understandable, but the way it is sold does not inspire compassion. It is not that books written by men are all bad, or that books written by women are all good. It is simply that good books written by women are not getting the attention, and sales figures, they deserve. This is a very tricky thing to remedy because good books written by anybody do not receive the attention they deserve. The trend is only more pronounced when the books are written by women or are about women. Women ranting at the men in this small, withering industry, where everybody is struggling, is like the few remaining human survivors killing each other in a zombie apocalypse. It does not spell well for the future.

The only good way to correct the literary imbalance is to write, publish, and promote more books by women and about women. Kicking down books by men about men is not only misdirected, it is counterproductive to the promotion of literature in general. Any kind of book banning, is still book banning. Nobody will ever succeed in suppressing male-orientated literature. They will only succeed in suppressing literature.

There is, however, a solution for female writers that can be utilized before the male/female imbalance of the English literary scene is corrected. It is not a solution I expect anybody to like, or is likely for many people to adopt, but it is a solution I can honestly get behind. Women should write their works in Japanese. Japan has a long tradition with female writers. Kinotsurayuki, a male writer, wrote under the guise of a woman as early as 935AD (No, not 1935. A thousand years before that). Male writers took over the field from the late 19th century onward with the Westernization of Japan, but women are still prominent in the business. Of the 10 best selling books in the Japanese language in 2015, 5 were by women. 44% of all professional writers in Japan are women. That is not bad at all in a male dominated country like Japan. Of the past 20 winners of the Akutagawa Award, the most prestigious literary award in Japan, 11 were women. Contrast that to the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in which only 7 out of 19 finalists between 2010 and 2015, and only two out of five winners, were women. Being female is not a disadvantage for a writer in Japan. At least not as much as it evidently is for women writing in English.

I am a native of Japan writing in English. There is no reason at all that a native speaker of English cannot write in Japanese. People of every vocation change locations, adopt nationalities and learn languages in search of opportunities, why not writers? In fact, there is a long tradition of that. Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, switched to writing in French. Joseph Conrad, a Pole, Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian, and George Mikes, a Hungarian, all switched to writing in English. Quite tellingly, foreign authors who have published books in Japanese include, Jinny FujiFrancoise Mor´echandEdith Hansen, and Yang Yi, all of whom are women.

Japanese is a language with a rich literary tradition, including the world’s oldest known novel (again, written by a woman). It is a language of a wide range of nuances and great flexibility. It is a language that has adopted vocabulary from both Asian and Western origins. Although only Japanese people read it, Japanese publishing is a ten billion dollar industry. There is plenty of money to be made and recognition to be had. Books originally written in Japanese have become Hollywood movies and Japanese writers have won Nobel Prizes. If the situation for female writers in America is so dire, why not come across the pond? We could use some fresh talent on the scene.

After all the talk about bigotry and misogyny and prejudice and racism, what is it really that makes writing in Japanese so unthinkable?



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