What Can Economics Do For Literature?

Rebecca Hill


Whenever I tell people that I’m an English and Economics major I tend to get surprised glances.

“That’s an unusual combination,” I’ve been told more than once.

“It’s good to be a writer in economics because a lot of economists are better at math than writing,” I’ll say.  The discussion usually ends there.  But what of the opposite? I’ve never been asked how my Economics major contributes to my English major.

Perhaps it has to do with the long and embittered rivalry between the arts and the sciences.  Although works of science and math are often spread to the public through articles and books, there’s less general acceptance that economics and math can contribute to the study of literature.

For this reason, I was excited to read a recent study by academics in English and Statistics from the University of Illinois and UC Berkley. Using statistical software and mathematical modeling, they surveyed more than 100,000 novels published between 1780 to 2007, and found that found that from 1850 to 1950, the proportion of novels published by women dropped from 50% of titles to a mere 25%.

This is a big deal. “If this trend is real,” the authors write, “it is an important fact about literary history that ought to be foregrounded even, say, in anthology introductions… It appears that scholars of each period are able to see the possibility that female authorship was declining in their own period. But no one has been willing to advance the dismal suggestion that the whole story from 1800 to 1960 was a story of decline.”

The drop in women authors means more for female representation in literature than just inequality in authorship. The authors of the study also found that male writers as a group throughout time seem “remarkably resistant to giving women more than a third of the character-space in their stories.” When female writers stopped getting published, female voices and characters began disappearing from fiction and the literary scene.

In the 1970s, the decline in female authorship began to reverse, and since then the percentage of female authors has gradually approached 50% again. It’s worth pointing out that the type of novels we’re discussing fall under the category of literary fiction. While before 1970 men published more best selling novels than women in nearly every genre category, in the past fifty or so years genre fiction has increasingly been divided into male or female author categories. For instance, men overwhelmingly write spy, science fiction, adventure, and suspense novels, while women write historical, domestic, and romance novels. The penchant for male authors to take on female pseudonyms in order to publish in the romance genre is a current and popular discussion in the literary world.

Thus, we have a crucial question: why did the percentage of women publishing novels drop so dramatically for a century? The authors offer one potential reason: they write that over this century, the prestige of novel writing was changing. In the early 1800s, novel writing was not a high-status career. Think of the Bronte sisters, who took up writing in the 1840s just to make a little money on the side. But by the late 19th century, literary fiction had become a prestigious genre, making it attractive to male writers. For a brief time following WWI, the Lost Generation of authors like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald could sustain themselves and their careers on writing alone. Literary criticism similarly became a full-blown discipline dominated by male critics and writers, who bounced ideas among themselves, and, intentionally or not, may have excluded female writers.

This explanation sounds well and good, but it doesn’t explain how women got left out. Women were writing before literary fiction became a prestigious genre, and they’re writing now, when it is one. They didn’t just decide to lie down for a nap for a century.

Using my background in economics, I’ll enhance this explanation with one of my own. The period from 1800 to 1960, when women writers began mysteriously disappearing from the publishing world, was also the onset and development of the Industrial Revolution. With industrialization came a decline in female labor force participation as women transitioned from agricultural labor to home production. Meaning, women increasingly became housewives and stay-at-home mothers while their husbands found work in blue-collar jobs.

But wouldn’t this give women more time to write novels? Well, the longer you’re out of the labor force, the harder it is to maintain your connections and skills. Contained within the domestic sphere, women writers of the late 1800s and early 1900s had less means to network and represent themselves to literary agencies, and less ways to get published.

In the 1950s and 60s, women’s labor force participation rates begin to rise, and continue rising for decades. The western world had hit the later stages of economic development, where increasing availability of white-collar jobs allowed women to compete with men for positions in the labor force. As women’s participation in white-collar jobs rose, so did their claim on the genres of literary criticism and literary fiction.

Of course, I can’t claim for sure that women writers’ hiatus from the publishing world was due to the social pressures of industrialization.  I haven’t run any numbers, like a professional economist would.  But I’m here to tell you that the numbers on female representation in literature do exist to be analyzed. It’s easy to say that art and literature are completely different from science and math. But when we put the subjects into two different categories—when we say that writers can’t understand economists and economists can’t understand writers—then we lose all the knowledge of literature that collaboration can bring us.

The literary world is not an unbiased place. Some voices are louder and more common than others. If we want to ensure representation for the myriad voices of our nation, we need unbiased methods for understanding where and what voices get to speak. What Economics brings to English is the chance to better understand our own subject. No one wants to believe that literature can be turned into numbers. But numbers can be used to appreciate and contribute to the study of literature.

One thought on “What Can Economics Do For Literature?

  1. Please keep writing and questioning Rebecca! Your thoughts and words are a bright light on a far horizon leading us to new places. Love your brilliance….love you!

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