"The masculinization of fiction, 1800-1960"
February 21, 2018 1:04 PM   Subscribe

The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction is a long essay by Ted Underwood, David Bamman and Sabrina Lee that uses quantative analysis of over a hundred thousand works of fiction digitized by HathiTrust to look at the proportion of fiction written by women, and the proportion of female characters, from 1780-2007. To the authors' surprise both declined steadily and profoundly from 1800-1960, before rebounding. They also looked at gender divisions between male and female characters over the same period, finding that they had lessened. The Guardian has a short summary of the findings. And for more on gender representation in 19th Century fiction, the authors point to Understanding Gender and Character Agency in the 19th Century Novel by Matthew Jockers and Gabi Kirilloff.
posted by Kattullus (14 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
Underwood, Bamman and Lee confirmed an old suspicion of mine.
posted by Kattullus at 1:21 PM on February 21, 2018 [6 favorites]


I think Joanna Russ was on the case in 1983.
posted by zompist at 1:35 PM on February 21, 2018 [9 favorites]


I'm a little surprised that this is a surprise. I'm no period specialist, but the narrative I had always been taught was that women were relatively overrepresented in the early, disreputable days of the novel, and then got shouldered out of the field as the genre "gained legitimacy."
posted by praemunire at 1:55 PM on February 21, 2018 [14 favorites]


Which is a pattern seen in other areas, computer operation and programming, for instance - as things gain more status, men begin to overtake women.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:59 PM on February 21, 2018 [12 favorites]


Or more to the point, when men take an interest in a pursuit, there is suddenly status and profundity.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:04 PM on February 21, 2018 [12 favorites]


I'm a little surprised that this is a surprise. I'm no period specialist, but the narrative I had always been taught was that women were relatively overrepresented in the early, disreputable days of the novel, and then got shouldered out of the field as the genre "gained legitimacy."

Yes--in fact, there's a line of thinking (e.g., Ina Ferris) that argues that this shift really begins with Walter Scott, who makes novel-writing a serious project for male authors.

This strikes me as convincing overall, although I think there's a bit more room for thinking about margins of error, specifically when it comes to anonymous authorship (which the authors don't really discuss). Anonymity remained important for the lower rungs of novel production long after it went out of fashion at the more prestigious levels, and as the records of many less-prestigious Victorian publishers no longer exist (they're in somebody's attic? they were bombed out during the Blitz? somebody used them for kindling?), it can be virtually impossible to figure out who wrote what. But I don't think that taking the problem of anonymous authors more explicitly into account would invalidate the findings.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:12 PM on February 21, 2018 [6 favorites]


But I don't think that taking the problem of anonymous authors more explicitly into account would invalidate the findings.

There's also the problem of pseudonymous authors. No reason to assume that "A Lady of Quality" was actually a lady.
posted by praemunire at 2:25 PM on February 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


There's also the problem of pseudonymous authors. No reason to assume that "A Lady of Quality" was actually a lady.

Yes (or that authors using male names were actually men...).
posted by thomas j wise at 2:42 PM on February 21, 2018 [6 favorites]


This is a very interesting piece of research and well worth doing, but I think there are a few problems with it, or at least with the conclusions the authors want to draw from it.

First: it's not clear to me how the sample size varies over time. However, I'd hazard a guess that the number of texts is increasing as we move through the period, i.e. more novels are being published. In other words, it's possible that novels by women authors form a smaller slice of a bigger cake. If so, I wonder how far it is reasonable to interpret this as a story of 'decline'? It's quite possible that the market for women's fiction is expanding even as the proportion of fiction by women is declining.

Secondly: the essay treats 'fiction' as a single category. In doing so it ignores the work of feminist scholars who have pointed out that there are significant gender differences between different types of fiction. Nicola Humble, in The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s (2001), has argued that the category of 'middlebrow' fiction was largely written for women (and, to a large extent, by women) but has tended to be ignored by literary histories focused on high modernism:
At the centre of my argument in this book is the notion of a distinctively feminine middlebrow. In one sense, this could be defined as middlebrow novels written by women, but this is not sufficiently accurate, since works by male writers such as E.F. Benson, Angus Wilson, and Evelyn Waugh, also fit into the broad parameters of this fiction. Rather, it is works largely read by and in some sense addressed to women that are denoted by this term. [..] I would suggest that it is largely because particular novels were read by women that they were downgraded at the time and subsequently seen as so insignificant.
Humble goes on to argue that in this period 'the number of women novelists was beginning to outstrip that of men'. In the light of this new research, that judgement may have to be revised. But she is surely not wrong to suggest that 'a new and lucrative market had opened up for specifically female fiction' and that women novelists were able to take advantage of it. Again I have difficulty seeing this as a story of decline. Perhaps the authors would have come to a different conclusion if they had taken their evidence not from 'the book-buying practices of academic libraries' but from popular lending libraries like Boots Book-Lovers' Library where the female readers of middlebrow fiction actually made their selection.
posted by verstegan at 4:31 PM on February 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the authors would have come to a different conclusion if they had taken their evidence not from 'the book-buying practices of academic libraries' but from popular lending libraries like Boots Book-Lovers' Library where the female readers of middlebrow fiction actually made their selection.

Did you skip the part where they manually combed through Publisher's Weekly and came to the same conclusion?
posted by steady-state strawberry at 5:14 PM on February 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


I think Joanna Russ was on the case in 1983.

I still have my copy, and yes, it is surprising how real-life women writing about reality get ignored the same way fictional ones do.

Thank you for beating me to the punch mentioning that fantastic book that ought to be mandatory reading. The sad thing is, she is more relevant now than ever -- and even in 2018, I still feel that pain as an author.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:58 PM on February 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


verstegan: First: it's not clear to me how the sample size varies over time. However, I'd hazard a guess that the number of texts is increasing as we move through the period, i.e. more novels are being published. In other words, it's possible that novels by women authors form a smaller slice of a bigger cake. If so, I wonder how far it is reasonable to interpret this as a story of 'decline'? It's quite possible that the market for women's fiction is expanding even as the proportion of fiction by women is declining.

CITATION NEEDED.

Seriously, I see a lot of speculation based on little evidence calling into question the research of a paper that shows evidence for long-term patterns of suppression of women's writing. Which is a thing I unfortunately see all the time, but I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Let's see your evidence; marshal your sources, post your data, and all that. Let's not stop at vague hypotheticals- show your work.


steady-state strawberry: Did you skip the part where they manually combed through Publisher's Weekly and came to the same conclusion?

Well if he paid attention to that, could he quite so readily jump to his conclusion of "I have doubts"?
posted by happyroach at 10:36 PM on February 21, 2018 [4 favorites]


"A Lady of Quality" is by Burnett, and is AMAZING.

Yo, Nina Baym's Woman's Fiction has already exploded a lot of mistaken assumptions about 19C women in fiction--they had agency, these books sold well, they were socially-conscious, etc. It's a solid scholarly project.
posted by mmmbacon at 5:59 AM on February 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


On my blog, I've been looking at some of the statistics regarding female versus male authorship of the New York Times number one fiction best sellers.

One thing I've found remarkable is that in contrast to 1943 through 2010 (1943 the first full year NYT sampled nationally) when men regularly dominated the list. In ten years, women were completely shut out, in most of the years from 2011 on, female authors have spent more weeks in the top position.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 10:03 AM on February 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


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