This is Shavua HaSefer, or the Week of the Book in Israel, which means book displays in public squares, literary event marathons, and deep discounts that many serious readers wait for. It’s the best time to find unusual volumes on display, and an ideal moment to check out new books and celebrate the liveliness of the Hebrew book. Fairs are open until midnight several nights a week in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But one group of writers is less-represented at this year’s literary party: women.
The National Library of Israel reported in its annual book-week dispatch, that just 35% of books published in Hebrew over the past year were written by women. “In other words, next to each book that a woman publishes, two books written by a man wait on the shelves,” wrote Miri Shaham, a writer and writing teacher, in Haaretz, in a scathing editorial response to the report.
The 35% figure includes prose, children’s books, guidebooks and more.
The question now is why this gap exists — especially when statistics released by the National Bureau of Statistics show that women read more than men; 47% of women reported reading a book once a week or more, compared to just 33% of men.
Shaham sees clear economic reasons for the gender gap among writers. First, there is the “open secret” that many Israeli writers are expected to help fund the publication of their own books. Writers are often expected to share in the publication expense — especially if they are unknown or write poetry, short stories or novellas. The total cost can reach thousands of shekels. In the U.S, this only happens at vanity publishers, not legitimate publishers.
Second, many writers now pay for an editor before they submit the book to a publisher. This practice of hiring a freelance editor to improve a book before submission to an agent or editor also exists in the U.S., and clearly requires some financial resources. In the U.S, this service begins at several hundred dollars and can cost thousands.
Third, there are submission fees, or dmei tipul, which can range from 100-150 shekel per publisher. For writers sending to multiple publishers, this can quickly add up. In the U.S, submission fees are common for writers submitting poetry collections, but prose writers can largely avoid them.
All of this means writers need some savings to even attempt publication, particularly in the lean years before they have established a reputation — and the amount required can be thousands of shekels. Consider the wage gap between men and women, Shahar writes, and it’s easy to understand why only 35% of books published are by women.
“Suddenly the gap is colored in a different color, the color of money,” she writes.
In terms of Israeli books available to American readers in English, most well-known Israeli novelists in translation are male: Amos Oz, David Grossman (who just won the Man Booker International Prize along with his translator Jessica Cohen), Meir Shalev, and Etgar Keret are all easy to find in American bookstores.
However, Dorit Rabinyan is an international best-seller, and Israeli female novelists like Ronit Matalon and Savyon Liebrecht are regularly translated around the world.
But percentage-wise, the majority of translated Israeli books are still by male writers; this is also the picture worldwide. This year marks the fourth annual Women in Translation Month, founded by Israeli biophysicist Meytal Radzinski and held each August to raise awareness, encourage publishers to increase the number of women on their list, and get readers to specifically read women writers in translation.
It’s not always easy to discern all this gender politics looking at book-fair displays, which often mix living writers with dead writers. Sometimes, in Israel as in the U.S, women writers are appreciated more after their deaths. This, of course, can be true for male writers as well.
But this factor can make it more difficult for the non-professional bookstore visitor to identify a gender gap, and realize that in Israel this year, it is two to one.
Consider the case of Leah Goldberg, who wrote fiction and poetry, as well as children’s books, and is now widely admired by younger Israeli writers. I was moved to see a new book collecting her nonfiction work — including reviews she wrote for newspapers of the work of her peers, dating back to the pre-State days — on sale at Tel Aviv indie HaMigdalor. That kind of book, a Collected Prose, happens after a writer has achieved a towering reputation, and it reminded me that the annual numbers only mean so much. What lasts is not a statistic.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God. Follow her on Twitter at @AviyaKushner