Talking with Nicola Griffith about the importance of counting women's stories

Nicola Griffith

(Nicola Griffith, best-known as the local author of Hild, published an astonishing blog post in late May of this year. Titled “Books about women don’t win big awards: some data,” Griffith presented a number of striking charts demonstrating the gender split between winners of awards like the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker, the National Book Award, and the Newbery Medal over the last 15 years. Unsurprisingly, more men than women have won almost all of those awards. But then Griffith noted an especially interesting statistic: the women who do win awards tend to win for books about male main characters. The post went viral. One week later, Griffith asked other people to take up her charge, to help count women’s voices in literature:

So, we need data. This is where you come in. We need many people counting many things. The more who count, the less each of us has to do.

Last week, Griffith spoke with the Seattle Review of Books about her findings, the status of the project, and what all this damning data means for the state of the publishing industry.)

Thanks so much for making the time for us. First, I wanted to talk about how you came to decide to quantify this gender divide in a way that, to my knowledge, had never been done before.

It’s a whole bunch of coming-together of circumstances. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for years — I definitely was talking about it in the early 2000s. I remember doing a blog post called “Girl Cooties,” which was basically about this issue. I’d done a rough [gender] count, but I hadn’t done the graphs. People listened, but it didn’t really go anywhere; everybody kind of knows it’s true, but they don’t want to see it.

My book Hild was out here in paperback and it came out in the UK in hardcover, so I had to do publicity — write “five-best” lists and, you know, that kind of thing. So I was thinking about my five favorite historical novels and I wrote them down and I was pleased because at least three of them, or actually four of them, were by women. I thought, “yay women!” And then I realized that those books by women were all about men. And then I thought, “goddamn.” These were my influences.

And at that point, my wife was working — still is working — downtown at an SEO-based tech company. She was having to rejigger how she presented her material to them, and so she started doing a lot of charts. And so I looked at the charts one day, and I thought to myself, “you know what? I could do this in charts.” So it was just a whole bunch of circumstances coming together.

So I just had to pick some awards and figure out how to do this on free software and make it pretty and brightly colored; and more to the point, I needed colors that would make sense instantly. So I just figured it out and did it and thought, I’m not going to editorialize. I’m just going to put the data up there and let the data speak for themselves. And — boom — the world went mad. I was quite astonished, actually.

Did you get pushback at the time?

I got zero pushback. The only pushback I kept getting from people was, “Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer and that’s about a woman.” Ah, well, no. It’s a bunch of stories connected and the first one is actually from the point of view of a boy, so I counted it as both — you’ll see in the data, I put a footnote in for it. But that’s the only serious pushback I got. I’ve seen other people’s blogs who reblogged my stuff and people haven’t been so kind to them. But I’ve been very lucky, I think.

Have people volunteered to help you with the project?

I had a lot of volunteers, and I find myself reluctant to actually take charge of them. Not because I dislike taking charge. I do, and that’s my problem. I’ve taken charge of many projects in my life and I don’t want to carry the torch on this one. This is something I want to be a distributed effort. I want many people all over the world to do their own thing, to put their results on their platforms, and to talk about it to their people.

And at the same time, I recognize there has to be a point where people can go to. Like VIDA — they are now the recognized counters of this stuff. In a perfect world, I would find a university department or an organization that would be willing to take this on. But you know, I have many jobs already.

The tools are really cheap these days. You can do Google documents, you can do all kinds of chart-making, you can make a website for essentially no money. It just takes time to organize it, and I don’t have that. So really, my call to people now is: please, somebody else, take this burden from me. I will of course keep talking about it, I’ll keep posting the occasional thing, but I’m a novelist. I write, I don’t organize massive groups of people. I have done that before, and it’s not my favorite thing.

Do you think, for instance, that Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch would have earned as many accolades had it been about a female protagonist? Are authors pressured to write about men?

That’s difficult to say, because I actually couldn’t read The Goldfinch. I read the first few pages and I really hated the way she handled it, and I just couldn’t read the book. I had a lot of people who read it tell me it’s a great book. It’s not my kind of book.

But I was reading — not the most recent Paris Review, but the one before — and there was an interview with Hilary Mantel. I don’t have the exact quote handy, but she said something like the first book or two she wrote, there were no women in them because she didn’t think women were interesting. They didn’t matter. And then she went back to rewrite [her historical novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety] and thought, “I have to fix that.”

I don’t think it’s industry pressure, I think it’s the way we’re brought up. Would Donna Tartt have won if she had written about a girl instead of a boy who becomes a man? I suspect not, but that’s just a speculative thing. I really couldn’t say.

I still remember this screenwriting course I took in high school. A friend of mine wrote her screenplay about a male protagonist and our teacher, who was a man, kind of pressured her in front of the class, asking her why she wouldn’t write about a woman. His heart, I think, was in the right place. He wanted women to have the agency to write about women, but the way he presented it was kind of a shaming moment. Do you have any advice for people who want to talk to women about their protagonists?

I think it really depends on the tone of the comment. If it’s “you should write about girls because you’re a girl, so stick to what you know, sweetie,” if it’s a belittling comment, then that demands one kind of response. But if it’s worded, “the world needs more stories about women. Do you have any ideas about women?” That’s a really different comment.

I would say, if someone says, “stick to your own little box, sweetie,” then you get up in their face and say “fuck you and the horse you rode in on. No.” And if someone says kindly, “wow, so why are you writing about a boy here? Have you considered gender-swapping and see what happens?” That’s a really different kind of comment, I think.

Do you ever find you have to edit the institutional sexism from your work?

I never had to up until I wrote my most recent novel, Hild, which is set 1400 years ago. Then all this stuff clicked into my head — how I thought I knew women were back in the day, and what women’s roles were back then. And I believe that I took the received wisdom as gospel. I had to think my way out of that particular paper bag, I had to think hard. I didn’t want to write a whole book about a woman being badly treated and being forced to have babies and doing a lot of weaving. I just didn’t want to do that. I had to figure out how I could make a woman be a person with agency back in the day.

And it turns out that women have always had agency. We’ve always been real human beings. It took a lot of work, it took a lot of fighting through my own layers of — hmm — indoctrination, I suppose.

Once I had figured that out, I realized how many dykes — especially English ones — are now writing historical fiction. Jeanette Winterson, Stella Duffy, obviously Sarah Waters. All these people are just writing about the past and I don’t know how aware of it they are, but I have become super-aware of basically rewriting the past and reclaiming it and just saying, “okay, it was possible for women then, it’s possible for women now. It will be even more possible for women in the future.”

It’s my way of changing the world, I suppose, one reader at a time.

You've said that one of your goals as a writer is to run your software on other people's hardware. I've called books the greatest engines of empathy humanity has ever created. But if this is true, why aren't books more progressive about gender inclusivity than other media?

Because of the books that have gone before. Because this is how we are brought up. Because of the books we have read — all those wonderful writers. When I was coming up with my list of five historical novels, the books that actually influenced me as a writer, it was Mary Renault, it was Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. They were all about men, famous men.

My favorite books are always widescreen epical things, sagas where people whack other people’s heads off with swords. Very nicely written, with lots of sensory detail. People grow and change, et cetera et cetera. People don’t seem to write books like that about women. And that pissed me off.

So I think we don’t because we haven’t. Books don’t because books haven’t. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing. And I do think we’re breaking that particular egg, and what’s going to come out isn’t a chicken. It’s a swan. It’s emerging kind of tentatively.

I can speak to me as a prime example because I’m the example I know best. I don’t think there is another book like Hild right now. It’s about a woman who was strong 1400 years ago as a woman, but it has lots of epical stuff. It’s not about using the power of sex to get your own way. It’s not about using her womanhood to achieve things. She is achieving things as a person, with her mind, with her actions. She does have some sex, obviously, and it’s great sex. But that’s not how she achieves her power.

You mentioned gender-swapping before, but that’s not the answer, either, is it? There almost needs to be a whole different vocabulary, a bottom-up reimagining of what a novel can be to accommodate strong female main characters. It’s not just a matter of doing a find-and-replace, “he” for “she,” is it? It seems like this requires a systematic rebuilding of fiction, and not just gender-swapping.

I think of that as “worm turns” fiction, where the people who have been oppressed suddenly have the upper hand. It’s like colorblind casting, in the 60s. I think that helped people understand that people of color are real people. Obviously, people of color knew that, but it’s still great to see yourself on stage that way.

It’s like that for women. We need to see ourselves as people, and if it takes just simple gender-swapping to start with to get yourself into that headspace, then great — use that as a tool. I think it’s a beginner tool, I think it’s a simplistic tool, but it might be an important one. It might be a big first step for some people.

A friend who works in publishing and I were talking the other day about how the publishing industry, anecdotally, seems to be made up primarily of women. She said that at most one out of every ten intern applications is a man, for instance. Her office is entirely women, except for the publisher, who is a man. But though women make up such a huge portion of the jobs in the industry, the seasonal catalogs I see are still vastly (and quantifiably) full of books written by and about men. Why hasn't this changed over the years? Why is it that women run the publishing industry, but they’re still not in charge of the publishing industry?

I think you’ve put your finger on it. It’s made up of women but it’s not run by women. It’s like nursing. If you look at hospitals, most of the nurses are women and most of the top administrators are men. It’s just kind of how power works. It’s an institutional thing. I don’t believe individuals are prejudiced, but the system is. Which is why I want data at every level.

Right at the beginning, as writers, what do we choose to write about? As I say, I think a lot of our influences are male writers and male protagonists. It’s easier to fall into that. So there’s that level.

Then you submit to an agent, you submit to a publisher, you’re accepted for publication. Are you going to be supported leading up to publication? At what level are you going to be supported after publication? Then there’s the buyers at the bookstores. And at every level, everyone falls back on what they know, or what they believe to be true. The way we’re brought up is that stories about men are important and stories about women are fluffy and domestic and kind of boring.

I don’t think it has anything to do with any of the individuals. That’s one of the reasons I wanted data. It’s about the system. It’s not about each individual making choices, it’s about what the system has done to their choices. It’s a very difficult thing to combat. I think the only way to combat it is to get every single person to pay attention, to literally count, to show themselves how they’re thinking.

Look at your own bookshelves. Count how many books are A) by women and B) about women. Look at your library. See how many books in prominent places are about women and how many are about men. Look at the new fiction table, how many are about or by women or men. And go on through every level.

If you’re in publishing, look at what’s submitted to you, and look at what you accept. If you’re a reader, look at what your friends are reading and talking about. And then count it, actually make a count over — I don’t know, however long works for you, whether we’re talking three weeks, three months, or a year. Whatever your focal length is. And actually look at your own data and then talk to others about it. I actually think people would be quite surprised at what they read.

I always forget the name of the experiment, but there is a lot of data that shows if you get 10 people in a room — especially in a traditionally male occupation like surgeons or police officers — and three of them are women, people will say it’s 50 percent women. Our perceptions are geared that way. It’s important to actually count. It’s one of the reasons I actually did this counting and the graphical representation of it. You can’t dodge the picture. It just lays it all out. There’s no way to argue with the data.