Harriett Logan, owner of Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights, Ohio, planned several March events this year to honor Women's History Month, including a philanthropic celebration with other shop owners on Larchmere Boulevard; an art exhibition in the bookshop's Annex Gallery; and an International Women's Day/Harriett's 50th birthday combo featuring "refreshments, music, political activism, surprises and a special sale for Loganberry Perks members."
But the centerpiece has turned out to be Illustrating the Gender Gap in Fiction, an inspired and eye-opening performance art project launched March 1, when bookshop staff and volunteers re-shelved works by male authors in the LitArts room backwards, leaving only women's works spine-out to highlight the disparity in numbers. Altogether, 25 columns of general fiction and five sections of poetry--approximately 10,000 volumes in total--were involved. The display will remain in place through March 14.
"I have been bookselling for over 20 years, and every year I have taken the time and effort to highlight women's works for Women's History Month in March," Logan told me earlier this week. "This year I wanted to do something different, something that would highlight not just the good works by women, but also the disparity in the industry. As someone who tries to carry female authors, the white-out effect is shocking. As a new/used/rare bookseller, my inventory has many older titles, and the general fiction section will not include the current bestsellers (which are on display in the front of the store). I am certain the ratio has improved in my generation, and Dickens, James and Trollope take up an awful lot of space, but I took an overview count of the 7,500 works of fiction we worked on, and female authors represent 37%. It's worse in poetry (about 2,000 books), and we didn't work on genre fiction or mass market paperbacks."
Logan said customer response has been "fantastic and warm. Many people just stand there looking at the space, shaking their heads. I want people to think: is the gender gap really this uneven, and why? What does my personal library look like? What can be done to change this imbalance? And then go find a title by a female author you may or may not be familiar with (it's easy to find them), and give it a try."
It's not just customers who have found themselves considering the implications. In addition to local coverage (Cleveland Scene, Cool Cleveland and more), the project has garnered headlines in publications as various as the Guardian, National Post, Daily Mail, Kathmandu Post, AdWeek, A.V. Club and Upworthy.
"I really didn't expect this to be a big deal," Logan observed. "It's a shelving exercise, a temporary art project to answer a question, visually. Everyone who has visited the store (unwittingly or not) has been positive, and inquisitive. The online trolls have been surprising. I guess I'm just not familiar with the troll community, and their outlandish comments are ridiculous. I wish they could actually pause long enough to think about the project and comment appropriately. I don't think I'm pointing out anything new here."
One of Logan's favorite Illustrating the Gender Gap moments occurred during an art opening at the nearby gallery, when "some of the guests came in to see what we were doing. Most were blank-faced and silent as I explained the project, let it sink in, and then the corners of their mouths lifted and they started slowly nodding their heads, saying, 'That's cool.'--and then they helped us shelve for a while."
She added that her favorite response thus far in the the wake of the publicity came from a male teacher from St. Augustine, Fla., "who turned all the male-authored books backwards in his classroom for the month of March, and had a discussion with his students about gender disparity in such an important educational industry. Wow."
I asked Logan if she had speculated about what the gender disparity would look like if she expanded the project to other sections. "This illustration begs the question, and if it makes you look twice, I think it has served its purpose," she replied. "When one troll told me to go back to the kitchen, I thought we should do cookbooks next. You know, a traditionally female realm, with books written by male celebrities dominating the field.
"Women authors will certainly dominate the romance field, and mysteries and fantasy will have closer gender balances. Graphic novels will be heavily male-written, and you can't blame the trends from a century ago there. I'd like to try the exercise on children's picture books and middle grade novels. In my head those genres are more gender equal, but a quick look at the shelves tells me otherwise."
On Tuesday, Logan e-mailed me this update: "So, a guy just brought in three bags of books for sale. He browsed the store while I was looking, and later we discussed the Gender Gap project while settling up. I mentioned that in his three bags there wasn't a single one written by a woman (they're still good books! Beckett, DeLillo, Reich, sure, I'll buy those), and he shrugged. I said, sure, but it's going to affect your world view if you only read books written by men. He conceded this was true, and you can tell he'd never considered it before. So maybe it is worth it, this crazy art project of mine."
As author Joe Hill tweeted: "Wouldn't it be interesting to try this with your own TBR pile for a while? Might try it with mine."
Yes, it would be, I respond, eyeing my bookcases, which look just a little guilty.
--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2954