Thank You, Katy Derbyshire, For Not Finger-Wagging

Many of you will have read or seen Katy Derbyshire’s recent article in the Guardian on women in translation. I braced myself for paragraphs of commentary on how publishers of literature in translation could “be better” than they are, and was already feeling that defensive twinge build up in my jaw. BUT, Katy did not go there.

“Editors have to look hard to find women writers in other languages. Not necessarily because they’re not being published abroad, but because of a familiar story – they get less recognition than their male counterparts.”

I personally appreciate that she didn’t use her article to further finger-wag at publishers of literature in translation for this issue in particular. I’d like to maintain that the majority of us are NOT, in fact, the problem, and certainly not the ones who deserve to be on the receiving end of the brunt of frustration and anger for each new wave of Read/Translate/Publish Women Authors Right Now Right Now Hey Like For Real Right Damn Now. I will say, though, that this feels like it’s changed in the past year, which I’m also grateful for. More on that in a bit.

Like Katy says (and like I’ve said before, in public, on panels, in front of people), editors generally work with the information they’re presented from foreign agents, publishers, literature centers. I say generally, because a good number of us are either bilingual or speak a foreign language, and can go straight to the original work to form our thoughts. And, where it concerns languages we don’t ourselves speak or have access to, we often depend heavily on the information we do get. If a foreign rights catalog consistently presents 20 authors, 15 of whom are men, that is the information set I, as an editor, am working with when considering whether or not to further look into these books and/or pursue them for publication. And when it comes to unsolicited submissions—all bets are off, and we have no way of knowing what will be sent to us gender-wise.

Now, to be honest, gender is one of the last aspects that I personally consider in regard to the first “level” of acquisitions. I look at the work for the work: Is it good? Do I like it? Do I think it will fit into our catalog? Etc. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the author is irrelevant in the first level. The first level is complex. If the author has a reputation, say, with us or in the English publishing world at large. But let’s pretend for the moment that every author’s name is conveniently gender-neutral, and I don’t know whether the book was written by a man or a woman. Or even better, let’s say that, when I’m looking at the merit and quality of the work, I forget—or don’t even care—who or what wrote it, if even temporarily. Point is, I’m in it for the words, for the experience of the text and story. And my goal as editor is to share as many great works of world literature as I can. (Which is ten a year, and often doesn’t seem like enough.)

Going back two paragraphs to the example of a catalog presenting 20 authors, 15 of whom are men—that leaves five women. If I look at that catalog, and three of the five books by women don’t fit into our catalog based on genre, I’m left with two books by women authors to consider. And if I wind up thinking the first book is okay, but not for us, and the second one I just don’t like, I’m not going to take either. And then I’m left with zero women to consider from this catalog. Now, it’s fully possible that I also find nothing for Open Letter among the 15 remaining authors, all men. It happens. But again, for me as an editor, the quality and merit of the work comes first. Gender second, or even just later. And I won’t settle for a book I believe either doesn’t fit, or is mediocre at best, just because I may feel bad that I’m not automatically inclined to choose the woman author because she’s a woman.

But we do take gender into consideration. Where it happens for is, most commonly, is in setting up our publishing seasons. We have two seasons a year, and in addition to trying to have a balanced women-to-men ratio within a year, we also try to do the same for separate seasons. Sometimes it doesn’t quite work out, mainly due to shifting the titles around to accommodate changes in translation or production schedules, and in trying to find the right combination of titles to complement each other in a respective season (though, again, at that time we’re sliding a bit back into Book Merit territory). But at Open Letter, we are certainly conscious to not end up with a year of purely male-penned books. However, it’s with that same caution that we are careful and conscious not to wind up with a year of just French books, or just Spanish books. While a gender balance is absolutely important, we also believe it important to extend that balance to cultures and origin countries—which is a parallel track. While we’re in the production stages for the books we’ve already acquired, we’re also working to find works from countries and areas of the world that we haven’t published that much from, or at all from. This is one way we ended up with a Danish Women Writers series (which, fun fact, didn’t start out as such, but once the first three books wound up being by women, we figured it would be fun to go all the way), and a Korean Writers series, which, spoiler alert, will also be all women. Again: IT HAPPENS. Yes, in the former case we made a decision to keep it all women, in a similar way that And Other Stories is making it their mission to publish only women in 2018. But again, we didn’t create our series like this based on pressure from outside sources, or because we felt bad, or that we were doing a disservice. It just ended up that, out of the 10 or so Danish books we found we wanted to pursue at the time, the majority of them had been written by women. The decision was natural.

This is going to sound like a broken record, or like a “Duh And/Or Obviously” moment, but there are so, so many other elements that go into consideration when producing these works of literature in translation. I’ll be honest and say that of COURSE it ruffles my feathers a bit each time someone specifically wags a finger in the direction of us publishers, because we’re already doing so much, if not all that we can do, in a niche market (that no one seems to care about but other publishers of translated literature, translators, and the percentage-wise “handful” of faithful [and super bad-ass and awesome and we love you forever and always and thank you for everything don’t stop never stop] booksellers and reviewers and champions of what we do), and then you’re (at times, it feels, aggressively) told that you’re at fault and should take responsibility and action for This Here Problem? Holy . . . Like, I mean, holy shit, Bast.

Maybe we’re just the easiest group of people to latch on to, because we are the ones publishing these books, after all. But we really are only working with what we have access to, and what we can find on our own when we don’t have “easy” access. Going back to Katy’s article. She ends it with this:

“As a translator from German, I’d be delighted to see more women’s voices brought into English. My literary girl crushes right now are on Antje Rávic Strubel’s beautiful new episodic novel exploring nature, love, gender and sexualities, In den Wäldern des menschlichen Herzens, and Heike Geißler’s anti-Amazon polemic Saisonarbeit, extracted at n+1. But with less than 100 foreign-language books by women making it to the UK every year, there’s still plenty of undiscovered writing. It’s just a question of publishers going out and finding it.”

Which, fair enough, but it’s also a question of what kind of information publishers have access to. Sometimes it’s good information. Sometimes it’s bad—I once marked several books in a Turkish catalog and had emails sent to the publishers to ask for more information, and out of the about 11 works we had been interested in learning more about, we received zero responses. Now I don’t know where that catalog is, and I don’t remember any of the books we were interested in.

Today, I pulled a load of New Books in German catalogs from my collection and looked through them, keeping a tally of how many men and women were presented in the catalog. (For clarification, this was the largest “run” of catalogs from anyone that I still had around, which is why I went with it. Also for clarification, my numbers are based on what I call the “Book Pages,” which are single pages dedicated to providing a summary and basic information on a single title and its author. Meaning, I didn’t count the authors discussed in the articles, interviews, etc.) Here’s what I found:

Spring 2008 – Issue 23:
Men: 28
Women: 9

Autumn 2008 – Issue 24:
Men: 29
Women: 12

Spring 2009 – Issue 25:
Men: 27
Women: 12

Autumn 2009 – Issue 26:
Men: 32
Women: 10

Spring 2010 – Issue 27
Men: 16
Women: 16

Autumn 2010 – Issue 28:
Men: 17
Women: 13

Spring 2011 – Issue 29:
Men: 16
Women: 12

Autumn 2011 – Issue 30:
Men: 21
Women: 13

Spring 2012 – Issue 31:
Men: 25

*Autumn 2012 – Issue 32:
Women: 16

Spring 2013 – Issue 33:
Men: 18
Women: 13

*Autumn 2013 – Issue 34:
Men: 16
Women: 15

Spring 2014 – Issue 35:
Men: 20
Women: 8

Autumn 2014 – Issue 36:
Men: 20
Women: 13

Spring 2015 – Issue 37:
Men: 22
Women: 16

Autumn 2015 – Issue 38:
Men: 21
Women: 19

If I did my math right (and let’s be honest, I probably missed some things), New German Books presented 558 authors in its catalog between 2008 and 2015, 344 of which were men, and 214 of which were women. That’s 62% to 38%, respectively. Which isn’t so terrible, in my opinion—and looking at the individual catalogs, the numbers are fairly close across the board, with a few near-perfect or perfect 50-50 years*, and one glaring season of approximately 70-30.

But—and this is where the breakdown of categories occurs—as an editor for a a press that publishes literary fiction and poetry, not all of these books are even relevant to me. Let’s use the 2015 catalogs as an example.

The only sections I will look at are for the fiction titles, short stories, and debuts where appropriate (our poetry editor has her own system so I generally don’t enter that territory for acquisition purposes). In the Spring 2015 catalog, that leaves me with 17 titles, and 21 in the Autumn 2015 catalog, or 38 works overall—or little more than half of the total authors presented in 2015. Though, of these authors, 17 are men, and 18 are women. A good year of equal-gender representation for New German Books! (The Spring season breakdown left me with 9 books by men and 11 by women, while the Autumn season left me with 12 by men and 7 by women.) Of course, these numbers might change from year to year. In that Spring 2014 issue, 16 of the 28 authors are ones I would look at, 11 of them men, 6 women.

To take this one step further, we can assume that at least half of the books from any given season just won’t interest me for Open Letter’s purposes—which is part of what makes books and reading interesting. That would leave me with around 19 books in their 2015 catalogs that sound like good possibilities. Of these 19, I’d probably end up with around seven titles to actually read through, and this after finding out that the other 12 have already been snapped up by other publishers. And once I’m down to those last seven titles, I can’t even guess what the gender representation would be. And regardless of what that gender representation is, we may end up deciding that X number of the seven weren’t right for us after all. Or that none of the seven were—again, regardless of gender. I guess my point is that, with so many other factors we as publishers have to keep in mind when researching and acquiring books for publication, it seems a little unfair to peg us for a single aspect. Maybe just blame us for all of it, or for none of it?

And even if catalogs like New Books in German do a great job in equally representing genders, there is no guarantee what the publishers will do. And I get it, that’s one of the things that worries people, and that people think should change—the awareness of the genders you publish. And that’s not a bad idea, and there are a million ways to encourage publishers to be more actively aware without making them feel like dirt. I don’t wag my finger at fellow translators for not translating enough or too much of something, or for the authors and works they believe in and love and want to translate—so why should the publishing side of my life have to be subject to that kind of response, for publishing the authors and works that we believe in and love and want to see translated?

I don’t know what came over me today that I wanted to look through these catalogs and keep track of numbers, and initially I had planned on having a big “a-HA!” reveal to redirect the scrutiny, but it didn’t pan out that way. Another lesson to probably take from Katy’s article is that it’s really about working together as a collective to help even out the imbalance, and with consideration for each other’s abilities, opportunities, and resources. Because things don’t usual end well with massive, multi-directional dickery. I actually would even kind of love to go through other catalogs, from foreign publishers in particular, as well as other “middle-man” organizations and agencies, to see where other numbers lie. My guess is that, ultimately, the findings will show the whole “finger-point-palooza” to be useless, because the numbers will be fairly even, and the one common tricky factor will be personal preference in literature. Final example: there’s certainly a reason why my beloved aunt loves Fabio-esque romance novels and Agatha Christie mysteries, but there’s also a reason why I don’t ask her for book recommendations.


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