Summer 2013. The cover of the British magazine Port declares that a new golden age in print media is underway. The magazine’s cover is minimalist—black letters spelling out the names of six editors at the largest cultural publications in the Western world. Dead centre is a crisp, black and white photo of six white men.
The cover generated some attention at the time, especially from certain online media outlets in the United States well versed in critical feminist thought.
For me and many others, the image was the embodiment of a certain problem, an uncomfortably matter-of-fact picture of the current situation: men holding the keys to the entire publishing industry as it stands. The image was unpleasantly reminiscent of some realities in my immediate environment.
It brought to mind another photograph: of the board of the Reykjavík International Literary Festival taken that same year. There sat nine people at a table—seven men and two women, one of the latter not actually a member of the board but serving, and still serving, as the festival’s artistic director. Since then, another man has actually been added to the administration, putting the proportion of women on the board at roughly eleven percent.
I looked at this photo for a long time and tried to imagine the rationale for such a ratio. Are people deliberately looking the other way? Do they have no interest in seeing this? Or is this unconscious, learned behaviour?
I was 23 when the middle-aged editor of a cultural magazine that I wrote for pushed up against me and, with hot whiskey breath, whispered in my ear that women had no business in the editor’s chair. They were simply not as capable writers as men.
A year later, I ran into a young, male author at a literary festival who asked me, rhetorically, what kind of books I was publishing [with Partus Press]— and smirked as if he were telling a joke when he answered for me: only young female poets. That same year, I heard Steinunn Stefánsdóttir, the chairman of the Icelandic Women’s Rights Association, say in an interview on a morning radio program that “In many respects, it’s somehow more manageable to advocate for the law to reflect equality. […] But when it comes to the intangible, things get more difficult.”
How does one highlight inequality in the intellectual world? How is it possible to isolate and measure when women’s voices are not being heard, not being taken seriously, or are even being ignored?
What does it say about the state of affairs when nationally renowned authors sit at a table and seem not to notice that there are eight times more men’s voices than there are women’s? Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for the problem? Haven’t we become a bit deaf when we no longer hear that men’s voices are dominating the conversation?
No one seems to bat an eye. We just sit at the table and smile for the camera.
We need more women’s voices, not fewer. But the problem is even more complicated than that. As much as we need to increase the number of voices, we also need to be more responsive to them. For even when the voices of women do make it through—when they’re heard on the radio, when they’ve fought their way into male-dominated organisations despite discouraging messages from their immediate environments—how much attention do we give them then? How well, in fact, are we listening?
A little over a month ago, an article was published in GQ magazine under the title “The New Canon: The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read.” It’s unlikely to surprise you that of the books listed, only four were books by women, or just under twenty percent.
Many studies have revealed similar trends, that is to say, that men are less likely to read books by women. Some studies indicate that on average, only one out of every ten books read by a man is by a woman.
This year, the publisher Forlagið released an anthology of Icelandic poetry in which former president [and the world’s first democratically elected female head of state] Vigdís Finnbogadóttir selected Icelandic poems and verses that have been dear to her throughout her life. There are thirty seven poets featured in this book, three of whom are women.
But the question of how well we are listening begs a still subtler and complicated one about how much interest and respect we afford women’s stories—how receptive we are to the female perspective.
Many factors are certainly at play here. This touches on how we define the canon. What we choose to teach in schools; which books we choose to buy; how we arrange those books in bookstores; who we choose to include in our poetry anthologies; and who we invite to sit on the boards of our literary organizations. All of these decisions have consequences and reveal which voices we value, safeguard, encourage, or simply dismiss.
Do we think it’s reasonable, for example, that female writers who write from a woman’s perspective should need to contend with devaluation of their art by way of terms and marketing tags like “chick-lit”? The term shouldn’t, perhaps, be insulting, but it undeniably is. (What would be most reasonable, of course, would be that books told from a female perspective be read by everyone.)
With that in mind, it should seem no coincidence that the most famous female protagonist in Icelandic literary history [Salvör Valgerður, from the Halldór Laxness novel ‘Salka Valka’] was created by a man.
But back to that subtle question— what can we do in order to be more responsive to women’s stories and to women’s voices? The outlook is bleak. It’s not exactly desirable to put your perspective or work of art out there if no one pays any attention to it. And how does one get people to listen if they’ve already decided not to? How do we become receptive to those voices that reflect something other than just our present points of view? That these viewpoints are forever celebrated by literary organisations is a matter of fact. Wouldn’t it be better to celebrate diversity?
The problem is complex and tangled, but some of this is clear. Role models make a difference. It is simply not permissible to pretend not to see, to pretend not to hear. It is not possible to hide behind excuses any longer. The country’s literary organisations fail the younger generations when they don’t think about equality in publications, in festivals, in grant conferrals. The media fails when equality is absent from their literary coverage. You may be stuck in old habits, but let’s not forget that fresh eyes are watching and fresh ears are listening. Everything we do sends them a message about what business they have in this world.
Valgerður Þóroddsdóttir is a poet and writer living in Reykjavík. She is a founding member and current director of the poetry collective and publisher Meðgönguljóð (Partus Press) and was nominated for the PEN International New Voices Award in 2014. Valgerður originally read this editorial on an episode of ‘Skáldatími’ (“Authors’ Hour”) on The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service radio station, Rás 1. It has been translated by Larissa Kyzer and republished in The Grapevine with Valgerður’s permission.