Travelling Together: Our Secret Sisterhood book tour of the USA

Regular readers of Something Rhymed will perhaps recall that we’ve sometimes likened our friendship to that of Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth, and Winifred Holtby, who penned South Riding.

We find ourselves particularly drawn to this pair because, like us, they met when they were at the very start of their writing journeys and each soon committed to becoming the ‘travelling companion’ of the other.

When Holtby spoke of this, she meant it in a metaphorical sense. But, as young friends in the 1920s, the two also enjoyed more literal travels when they spent a summer holidaying together in Cornwall and another in France and Italy.

The Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto, which we visited together during our early twenties (Image by Martin Falbisoner – Wikipedia Creative Commons licence)

When we were first getting to know each other, while working as English language teachers in Japan, we did a lot of travelling. We look back on our joint-trips with great fondness – not just because they gave us the opportunity to explore new places together, but also because the conversations we had, walking the streets of ancient cities or the rough paths of mountainous regions, really cemented our fledgling friendship.

Although the years we spent working intensively on A Secret Sisterhood have been – all in all – a wonderful experience, we have sometimes lamented the fact that, during this period, it sometimes felt that work had taken over all other aspects of our relationship, and that important events in each of our lives had passed by without much opportunity for sharing them with our friend.

The two-and-a-half weeks we’ve just spent touring the USA together, to mark the American publication of our book, turned out to be just the chance to put all this right.

We began our tour in New York City, with an interview with Kory French for Book Talk on Breakthru Radio, which has recently gone live. This gave us the chance to reflect – as we would many times over – on the highs and lows of writing a book together, including the joys of joint discoveries, and the frustrations of late-night quarrels about turns of phrase and the points we each felt our book ought to be making. All of these, we’re relieved to be able to say, ultimately brought us closer.

Image by Ravi Sunnak

Our first event was at the NYU bookstore, with Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Next up was a talk at Shakespeare & Co. with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (writer of novels including Bittersweet and June). This event was organised by the Brontë Society’s American chapter and the Jane Austen Society of North America – NY Metropolitan Region.

Our sell-out event with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (image by Shakespeare & Co)

We had known Kate and Miranda only through their books before, and so it was a real pleasure to meet them in person. But at our event at Book Passage in San Francisco, it was lovely to collaborate again with Mary Volmer (Reliance, Illinois), who had also chaired the conversation at our northern book launch in the UK, back in June.

At Vroman’s in Pasadena, another dear friend of ours Elizabeth L. Silver (The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and The Tincture of Time) ran a discussion between us and another pair of author-friends Julia Fierro (Cutting Teeth and The Gypsy Moth Summer) and Caeli Wolfson Widger (Real Happy Family).

And finally, it was wonderful to be interviewed at UCLA by Professor Michelle Liu Carriger, an old friend from our Japan days.

With our book on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt shelves behind us

In between our events, we went to meetings together, saw an interview we’d given to Alexis Coe for Lenny Letter go live, and visited the headquarters of our American publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in Boston and New York City.

We caught up with mutual friends living in the USA, and worked on book-related feature articles, including this one, recently published in The Millions, and this one just out in TIME – Motto. In the gaps between all these things, we enjoyed a bit of sightseeing, and, perhaps most of all, caught up on all that personal news we’d managed to miss, and just enjoyed each other’s company as friends.

 

 

Celebrating Past and Modern-day Writing Friendships

Especially over the past year, when we have been hard at work on our joint-book, we have been focusing mostly on historical literary friendships on this blog.

Reading the novels and stories of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf and their friends has given us much to think about, as have our conversations about these important literary relationships.

We’ve often been struck by how relevant the issues faced by these authors of the past still feel to female writers today – particularly in terms of the need to balance the desire to write with other pressing responsibilities.

Austen’s great friend and governess to her brother’s children, Anne Sharp, had time to pen her theatricals only in the hours in between teaching lessons.

Before the tremendous success of her first published novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë faced similar struggles.

But just as Sharp benefited from the support of Austen, who did her best to improve her friend’s work life, Brontë was lucky to have the future feminist author Mary Taylor to encourage her literary efforts.

The two of us have been teachers for about a decade now and have thankfully never found it as limiting as Brontë, or even Sharp, did. We have been lucky in that, rather than teaching a broad curriculum, we are teachers only of writing – a subject in which we naturally have a genuine interest.

Nonetheless, there have been times in both of our pasts when, being short of money or eager to get a foot in the door at a particular institution, we’ve taken on too many classes and our own writing has suffered as a result.

This need for authors to try and find the right balance been writing and other aspects of their lives came up at our recent Writing Friendships event at City, University of London, made possible by the generous support of Arts Council England.

Susan Barker
Susan Barker

We were joined by writers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan and Denise Saul – all also former guest bloggers for Something Rhymed. The feeling among the group seemed to be that, although teaching (and teaching writing especially) can provide inspiration for an author, it’s important to fiercely guard your own writing time.

But we all also felt that it was equally important not to cut yourself off from other people. In the talks by Susan, Ann and Denise, audience members were treated to insights about the literary friendships of each woman on the panel.

Ann Morgan - image by Steve Lennon
Ann Morgan – image by Steve Lennon

Ann, the first speaker of the evening, talked about the important bonds she’d forged through her web project and non-fiction book, Reading the World. Susan spoke about the invaluable advice and support she’d received from Liang Junhong, a friend she met while she was living in China and working on her novel The Incarnations. Denise talked about collaborating with other artists as part of a video poem project, Silent Room: a Journey of Language.

Denise Saul - image by Amanda Pepper
Denise Saul – image by Amanda Pepper

Audience member, Rosie Canning, has written up a fuller account of the evening, which you can read here.

We are grateful to Rosie for commemorating the event in this way, and to everyone who came along to support us. We’re sure to be running more Something Rhymed events in the new year, so do keep an eye on our blog for more details.

 

Writing Friendships event at City, University of London

Emma and I have just returned from an enjoyable weekend in Lincolnshire, where some of our readers may recall I used to live in the early years of our friendship.

We’d gone there to teach two friendship-themed writing workshops together. It was fun to be able to take Emma to a few of the places I used to know well, to introduce her to some of my former evening class students, and also for us to meet plenty of other people for the first time.

For those of you who couldn’t make these sessions, we’re delighted to be able to let you know that we have another event coming up next month, this time at City, University of London, where both of us teach on the Novel Studio programme.

city-uol-logo-rgb-dk1aWriting Friendships at City, University of London

As long-term friends who’ve supported each other’s careers from the beginning, we know just how important building strong links with other writers can be. We’ll be joined by Something Rhymed guest bloggers Susan Barker, Ann Morgan, Irenosen Okojie and Denise Saul, who’ll be sharing their own experiences of literary friendship and offering practical advice to new and advanced writers on ways in which they can forge and develop meaningful writing relationships of their own.

Once again, this event has been generously funded by Arts Council England.

When: Wednesday 16 NovemberPrint

Doors open 6.15pm, event runs from 6.30-8pm, followed by drinks reception – a chance to make new writer friends

Where: The Northampton Suite C, City University of London, Northampton Square, London, EC1V 0HB. Details of how to reach the venue appear on this page.

Tickets: Places are free but limited for this event and must be booked in advance through the City, University of London website. You can do this here.

We are grateful to City, University of London and Arts Council England for helping to make this event possible. We hope to see you there.

 

Footage of Something Rhymed Salon 3: Genuine Change

For those of you who were unable to make our literary salon series this spring, or for those of you who’d like to relive the experience, please take a look at these film clips of the discussions we enjoyed.

At the third salon, our stellar line-up of guests talked about ways to achieve genuine improvements in diversity in the UK literary scene. To hear their ideas, take a look at clips of Melanie Abrahams, Founder of Renaissance One – a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts; Jill Dawson, Orange Prize shortlisted novelist; Louise Doughty, Costa Award shortlisted novelist and former Booker Prize judge; and Varaidzo, Arts and Culture Editor at gal-dem – an online magazine comprising almost fifty women of colour.

 

 

These films were made by the brilliant Ashley Hall, a former New York University in London student. She also updated this website and designed our banner and posters. Ashley is building up a portfolio for her future career as a media consultant. Get her while you can still afford her! She is based in New York but we communicated by Skype and email. If you are interested in getting a quote from her, feel free to email on ashley.hall@nyu.edu

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Footage of Something Rhymed Salon 2: So-Called Women’s Issues

For those of you who were unable to make our literary salon series this spring, or for those of you who’d like to relive the experience, please take a look at these film clips of the discussions we enjoyed. You can also click on the links below to read write-ups from some of the salon speakers.

At the second salon, our stellar line-up of guests talked about why books by and about women and so-called women’s issues tend to get devalued by the literary establishment. Take a look at clips of journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar; biographer and former senior editor at The Women’s Press, Sarah LeFanu; bestselling author, Karen Maitland; and Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts to see hear them identify the problems and make suggestions for accelerating change.

These films were made by the brilliant Ashley Hall, a former New York University in London student. She also updated this website and designed our banner and posters. Ashley is building up a portfolio for her future career as a media consultant. Get her while you can still afford her! She is based in New York but we communicated by Skype and email. If you are interested in getting a quote from her, feel free to email on ashley.hall@nyu.edu

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Footage of Something Rhymed Salon 1: VIDA Count

For those of you who were unable to make our literary salon series this spring, or for those of you who’d like to relive the experience, please take a look at this film of the discussions we enjoyed during the first event. You can also click on the links below to read write-ups from some of the salon speakers.

At the first salon, our stellar line-up of guests included Michael Caines, Assistant Editor of The Times Literary Supplement; Maggie Gee, first female chair of the Royal Society of Literature; Harriett Gilbert, presenter of Radio 4’s A Good Read; and Salena Godden, poet, performer, author and host of the Book Club Boutique.

They explored why so many of the UK’s most prestigious literary magazines and newspapers review far fewer books by and about woman than men – as evidenced by the VIDA count. On this film, you will hear our speakers pinpointing problems and suggesting solutions.

This film was kindly made by Sam Cheung, a former student at New York University in London.

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Something Rhymed Friendship-Themed Writing Workshops in Lincolnshire

Many thanks to everyone who came along to Saturday’s Margate Bookie talk on the literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. We’ll look forward to sharing more stories about these authors and their friends in our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood.

Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship (Image by Jonathan Ruppin)
Emma (left) and Emily talking about female literary friendship. Image by Jonathan Ruppin.

 

For our readers based in or near Lincolnshire, or those of you who are able to travel to this part of Britain, we want to let you know about two more Something Rhymed events coming up soon.

Something Rhymed friendship-themed writing workshops

Dates & Times: We will be running the same Printworkshop at two different venues.

South Holland Centre, Spalding: Saturday 15 October, 2-5pm

Fydell House, Boston (Lincolnshire): Sunday 16 October, 2-5pm

With practical writing exercises that can be tackled at different levels, these workshops will be open to experienced and novice writers – and, of course, both men and women.

The workshops have been generously funded by Arts Council England. Places are free but limited and need to be reserved in advance by emailing somethingrhymed@gmail.com, indicating whether you want to attend the Spalding or Boston workshop.

We do hope to see you at one of these events. In the meantime, do look out for the videos of our recent London literary salons. We’ll be sharing these here on Something Rhymed over the coming weeks.

Something Rhymed by the Sea…

Something Rhymed at the Margate Bookie festival

Do join us for our talk on literary friendship at Margate’s literary festival on August 20th. Or why not make a weekend of it and stick around for Emma’s appearance at the literary lounge on August 21st, where she will be talking about her debut novel, Owl Song at Dawn? 

Something Rhymed Event Poster (3)
Date & Time: Saturday 20 August, 5.30-6.30pm Venue: Sands Hotel, Margate Ticket: £5, book here. Click on the poster to view it in greater detail.

We are really looking forward to two days of literary fun  and friendship down by the sea. The line-up includes friends of Something Rhymed, Maggie Gee and Salena Godden, who wrote a joint guest post for us back in 2014 and appeared at our first Something Rhymed Salon.

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Tickets: £5.00 or all three Literary Lounge events for £15 Date & Time: Sunday August 21, 5.30-6.30pm Venue: Sands Hotel, Margate. Click on the poster to view it in greater detail.

There’s something for everyone: Jay Rayner for the foodies, Ruth Dugdall for fans of crime writing, magical storytelling shows for the kids and happiness workshops run by Psychologies Magazine, which we might all find beneficial. Here’s the full Margate Bookie Programme for your perusal.

As if that’s not enough, we’re assured that Margate Bookie is England’s friendliest litfest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Can We Do?

During our Something Rhymed salon series, and in the conversations they inspired, we looked at ways to accelerate gender parity in the literary world. We’ve compiled a list of all the suggestions that emerged. Perhaps there’s something here that you feel well-placed to do?

This image is in the public domain.
This image is in the public domain.

Readers

  • Start with our own bookshelves. Do we read at least as many books by women as men? And do we read diversely in a broader sense too? If not, perhaps we might want to redress this balance by embarking on a period of reading only women, for example, or black and minority ethnic (BAME) writers or books published by independent presses.
  • Take a look at the VIDA counts and consider subscribing to those magazines whose statistics show a commitment to gender parity. We might also want to think about cancelling subscriptions to magazines whose statistics have been consistently poor in this regard, and writing to the editor to explain why we’re turning away.
  • Encourage our friends to read more diversely.
  • Read stories to our children that explode gender stereotypes.
  • Donate funds to organisations such as VIDA, who campaign for equality in the literary world.

Writers

  • Start with our own writing. Do we explode gender and other stereotypes in our own work?
  • Champion the excellent work of writers from discriminated against groups. We can do this through reviewing, blogging, writing endorsements, nominating for prizes, mentioning fellow authors in talks, holding firm in prize panel negotiations etc.
  • Mentor emerging writers who might struggle to get their voices heard.
  • Keep submitting our stereotype-exploding work to competitions and magazines.
  • Set up a website or event series that focuses on the work of an excluded group.
  • Edit a collection of work by writers whose voices are traditionally suppressed.
  • Find a project we admire and ask those who run it what we might do to help.

Educators

  • Design our syllabi to reflect diverse influences.
  • Call our colleagues out when they fail to do likewise, and encourage our students to do the same.
  • Provide talented students with resources and support to help them overcome barriers to success.
  • Be alert to the preconceptions that might colour class debate and encourage students to question their own prejudices.
  • Consider whether conscious or subconscious prejudice is affecting hiring decisions.
  • Campaign for information about pay to be freely available, so that we can assess whether there are gender or other pay gaps in our institutions.
  • Assist junior colleagues who face greater barriers to success.

Literary Industry Professionals

  • Solicit work from writers whose backgrounds reflect the diversity of the general population.
  • Ask our colleagues to be equally accountable.
  • Keep reviewing our statistics, and asking how we might seek to improve them.
  • Set up a journal or TV/radio show that sends review copies to reviewers without providing any information about the author.
  • Set up a journal or show that asks two very different reviewers to review each book.
  • Think hard about what we prize in writing, and whether any of this is based on prejudice.
  • Is the academic at the highest level of the hierarchy necessarily the best person to write this review? Has privilege contributed to their rise up the ranks?
  • Fight for information about pay to be freely available, so that we can assess whether there are gender or other pay gaps in our institutions.
  • Assist junior colleagues who face greater barriers to success.
  • Identify a gap and come up with strategies for filling it.
  • Work with representatives of excluded groups to find excellent writers from these backgrounds.
  • Consider whether a temporary quota might help.
  • Set up a prize that will champion the work of an under-represented group.
  • When running literary events, make sure that every element of it is committed to diversity in its broadest sense.
  • Be brave!

Using the comment form below, please share any other strategies to accelerate greater diversity in the literary world. Or perhaps you intend to take us up on one of these suggestions. Do let us know what you plan to do.

We’ll be back on the first Monday in June with an autobiographical post by Emma on her early readings of Virginia Woolf – one of the authors who will feature in our forthcoming book, A Secret Sisterhood.

Women Take Back the Write

New Zealand-born writer, John Forde, was inspired to pen his first blog post in nine months after attending two of the Something Rhymed salons. Here are his reflections on the state of gender relations in the UK’s literary world, and whether men have a role in this conversation.

Is feminism dead in the UK? This month’s Something Rhymed Literary Salon series re-opens a much-needed debate about women’s visibility in the literary scene. 

Not long after I moved to London, in the summer of 2003, my friend D’arcy and I were sitting in a park, watching some cute guys playing football. A cluster of young women watched them from the sidelines, giggling nervously behind their hands, and shifting their weight from one leg to the other so their kitten heels wouldn’t get stuck in the damp grass.

“There’s something wrong with this picture,” D’arcy said. “If this was New Zealand, the girls would be in there playing too.”

Her point was proved just a few minutes later, when their football rolled in our direction. One of the boys jogged towards us to retrieve it. He was about 18 or 19, lean and sexy, with a shaved head and grey trackie bottoms. As he came closer, D’arcy grabbed the ball and stood up to face him.

“Give it back!” he said. D’arcy said nothing but smiled at him, taunting him with the ball.

The boy flew into a rage – furrowed brow, red cheeks, skinny arms gesticulating. “It’s not for you!” he bellowed, grabbing the ball out of her hands. “You’re a girl!”

Though I didn’t know it then, there in a nutshell was my experience of gender relations in the UK. Action and adventure is for men; women are there to watch men, and empty the slop bucket when it starts to smell.

In the years that followed, I puzzled at the meek acceptance of women’s subordinate status in the culture, and tried to identify the conditions that made it possible. Part of it was the everyday tragicomedy that constitutes being English. Politeness and deference are celebrated as virtues, meaning in language is buried under layers of irony and passive-aggression, and there’s a national addiction to the word “sorry”. It’s amusing, in a Dadaist, masochistic kind of way, but hardly conducive to having a serious dialogue about inequality.

But there was something else at play, I sensed, that felt painfully specific to women. Feminism was a dirty word. Over the years, I lost count of the number of times I read or saw or heard a woman begin a feminist critique with “I’m not a feminist but….”. And it was truly, madly, deeply uncool for women to get angry, especially if it involved contradicting a man.

Where were the strong, stroppy feminists of my home country? The Kate Sheppards who got the vote in 1893 without having to resort to hunger strikes, the Jean Battens who flew solo around the world, the Katherine Mansfields who moved to London and made Virginia Woolf jealous, the Jocelyn Harrises who taught me at university, the Helen Clarks who became Prime Ministers? In Ye Oldie England, the only murmurings of feminist discontent came from nice white middle-class radio presenters with cut-glass accents, or columnists in the left-wing newspapers. Everything was so quiet and measured, carefully calibrated so as not to give offence.

As I learned, feminism – or any other social cause in the UK – would always play second fiddle to the monolith of class. How can class be avoided, in a society where the head of state is an unelected monarch (though admittedly a woman), where the ruling classes are overwhelmingly drawn from a handful of private boys’ schools, and where the rest of the population gets classified by their accent or what school they went to? George Bernard Shaw was onto something in Pygmalion: the way an Englishwoman talks can be literally the difference between her being a duchess or a flower seller.

It was then that I realised how shocking and revolutionary Germaine Greer must’ve been when she took on the UK in the 1970s. She was the antithesis of a “nice girl”: searingly intelligent, classically educated, articulate, funny, and most importantly, fearless in her opinions and unconcerned with being “difficult” or giving offence.

Towards the end of the 2000s, with the Conservatives back in power, the UK seemed in dire need of a re-inoculation of Germaine’s brand of feminism: articulate, angry and persuasive. Greer still popped up occasionally in the Guardian, but she seemed strangely irrelevant and lost in her own nostalgia – twittering about new translations of Proust or criticising transsexuals with a venom that was out of sorts with contemporary sexual politics. There were a few others of her generation about: Helena Kennedy was still going strong, though since ascending to the House of Lords, she’d shifted her focus from women’s justice to the wider sphere of human rights abuses.

So who was England’s modern-day feminist voice? In 2011, Times columnist Caitlin Moran had a huge bestseller with her book How To Be A Woman. Moran’s greatest achievement, I think, has been to rescue the word “feminist” from the trash heap, and repackage it for a post-Internet/lads’ mag generation. She’s a bright and entertaining writer, but to me, she’s more stand-up comic than feminist commentator – always working too hard to get the laugh, and desperate to prove that she’s as hard-drinking and rock ‘n roll as one of the lads. Her autobiographical writing is extraordinary – How To Be A Woman has a fearless and unapologetic account of her getting an abortion – but even this seems to work against her. By continually referencing her life, Moran reminds us how exceptional she is. Like Julie Burchill before her, she was a working class girl from up North with no university qualifications, who somehow became a broadsheet journalist and author. Moran is a depressingly rare success story; she’s an outlier, rather than the Everywoman she seems to want to be.

In the last few years, something has been shifting in feminist discourse, much of it centred around social media. Websites like The Everyday Sexism Project encouraged women to take note of and record daily reminders of their secondary status. The vicious trolling of academic and TV presenter Mary Beard was met with a  sustained critique about misogyny in Twitter. And research sites Vida and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media published hard evidence of women’s under-representation in literature and film. Finally, women were getting angry again – and even talking about how their right to get angry was being slapped down by men smirking “Calm down, dear”. There was still little hope in hell of Britain getting a feminist Prime Minister – I’m with Russell Brand’s assessment of Margaret Thatcher breaking the glass ceiling for other women “only in the sense that all the women beneath her were blinded by falling shards” – but it was a start.

A new voice in the current wave of English feminism is Something Rhymed, a website set up by writers Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa to research and celebrate female literary friendships. Their efforts are soon to be turned into a book, A Secret Sisterhood, published in 2017. This month, Emma and Emily curated a three-part series of panel discussions on women’s under-representation in the UK literary scene, and what can be done about it.

I’ve been to a fair few literary salons in my time, and walked away from most of them feeling entertained but not that challenged, forgetting most of what I’d heard by the next day. The Something Rhymed salons were a weightier, more satisfying experience – like the glorious meal Virginia Woolf describes at the start of A Room of One’s Own, before she returns to the women’s college for prunes and custard.

This image is in the public domain.

The first salon (which I confess to not attending) concentrated on the shameful under-reporting and publishing of women’s voices in literature and journalism. Bolstered by statistics from Vida, the London Review of Books was singled out for a particular kicking: despite having a female editor, its record of reviewing books by women and female contributors is appallingly low. (Just a few weeks later, Jenny Diski, one of the LRB’s few regular female contributors, died, leaving the magazine looking even more terminally male and white.)

In the second salon, a new panel – writers Michèle Roberts and Karen Maitland, editor Sarah LeFanu and journalist Arifa Akbar – took on the vexed subject of “women’s writing”. Arifa kicked off by noting that many of her female interview subjects described “women’s writing” as a trap, a niche category into which female writers can be dropped into and ignored. Quoting Woolf, who said famously that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex”, Arifa also noted that gender categories tend to be imposed from outside than from within. Women writers are called “domestic” when they write about family, she said, whereas male writers writing in the same territory (Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Ove Knausgård) are categorised as “state of the nation” writers.

This bias was something reported on by all the panelists. Karen added that there was still widespread kowtowing to the perceived authority of men, and an assumption that women’s literary territory was “domestic” and therefore narrower in scope. Arifa agreed, arguing that many male readers (including her builder) were reluctant to read fiction written by women – even The Girl on the Train, the recent femme-penned commercial blockbuster.

Sarah gave a fascinating account of her work at the Women’s Press, which was set up expressly to further the cause of the women’s movement, and to create a platform in which “revolutionary women” could get published. The Women’s Press was instrumental in publishing science fiction written by women – until that point considered largely a male domain. Sarah commented ruefully on the poor showing by women in Penguin’s recent two-volume anthology of British short stories, edited by Philip Hensher, and called on women in the literary world to renew their political credentials.

Michèle, one of the Women’s Press’s most celebrated authors, couched women’s inequality in a wider historical and political context. Since the days of Ancient Greece and Rome, women have been associated with the body and child-bearing, rather than intellect or public speaking. In our modern capitalist era, huge profits are made from dividing and categorising the sexes for marketing purposes. Arifa agreed, and discussed the sexual commodification of female writers, especially those from “exotic” BME backgrounds. She described a hair-raising moment from her days at the Independent, where a Ghanean author was selected for a profile solely on the strength of her youthful good looks.

Karen discussed the problems of literature being separated along gender lines, and the reluctance of the industry to move beyond binary categories. She related visiting a bookstore, in which the male store owner had organised all the books into male vs female sections. The owner told Karen proudly that he’d even researched authors with gender-free names, to ensure that sneaks like Pat Barker and J K Rowling didn’t end up in the “wrong” section, thus avoiding the horror of one of his male customers accidentally buying a book written by a woman.

When asked what strategies should be put in place to combat gender stereotyping, Arifa encouraged female authors to stop anonymising themselves or trying to “trick” readers with gender-neutral names. Michèle spoke encouragingly of the power of community, and praised Something Rhymed as a good example of modern-day consciousness-raising. Sarah argued that more attention needed to be paid to female success stories, and to continue the fight for pay equity among the sexes. And Karen encouraged everyone to read and write widely, and to focus on removing gender barriers for the next generation of readers.

It was a fascinating panel, as much for the generation differences in the panellists’ approach to feminism as for their individual strategies. As Sarah and Michèle spoke, I felt my shoulders drop and I exhaled with satisfaction. Here, at last, was the confidence and the unapologetic politicising that I’d been missing in over a decade. It sat in such marked contrast to the tentative, atomised discourse of whichever wave of feminism we’re in now. Maybe I am just a 70s feminist at heart; I’m certainly from the generation who benefited from their efforts. And yet Arifa seemed closer to my generation’s voice: cautious, questioning, alert to inconsistencies, and keen to avoid orthodoxies. Both voices seem necessary to inform a well-rounded debate.

In the third salon, Emma continued the discussion about strategies to improve gender equality in the literary world. The panel comprising novelists Jill Dawson and Louise Doughty, editor and blogger Varaidzo and literary curator Melanie Abrahams were asked to discuss how we can encourage more reading by and of female writers.

Louise spoke of the power of literary prizes, both to transform a writer’s career, and to bring women’s writing to wider public attention. She discussed the controversial history of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), in which the original sponsors Mitsubishi withdrew their support after protests that the competition was biased against men. Jill noted that the prize is now one of the world’s top literary prizes, a status that was unimaginable when it was first launched.

Varaidzo spoke about the absence of writing featuring female and non-white protagonists, particularly in children’s and young adult fiction, and pointed to the opportunities offered by self-publishing as a means of short-circuiting the publishing world. Crowdsourcing provided an accessible way to finance literary projects, she said, and has the added commercial benefit of identifying demand for a writer’s work in advance. She gave a hilarious account of attending a workshop at a major publishing house, in which well-meaning editors admitted they had no idea how to access younger and BAME audiences. While the will was there to connect, bridges needed to be built between publishers and writers from under-represented groups.

Jill agreed with Varaidzo’s assessment of the major publishers, and cited the excellent work done by the Women’s Press and smaller independent presses to fill in the gaps in the marketplace and promote women’s work. She noted similar problems for working class writers trying to find a market, arguing that the publishing industry was still dominated by white middle-class Oxbridge graduates, usually called Lucy. She noted that many publishers and agents still followed a highbrow academic culture, favouring reviews published in the LRB or the Times Literary Supplement rather than on Goodreads. Doughty added that while publishing was now a heavily female industry, the big decisions about sales and marketing still tend to be made by (male) financiers, with an eye on corporate profit, resulting in conservative decision-making.

Melanie, the creative director of Renaissance One, described her organisation’s work as literary ecology: identifying needs and potential markets, and offering support and mentoring to writers and literary organisations. She encouraged a scientific approach to combating gender inequality, identifying “points of infiltration” and shifts in power structures in the literary world, and “looking with joy” at the cosmopolitan landscape.

Jill agreed with this approach, saying that the struggle for gender equality often felt like Sisyphus pushing his rock up a mountain. Rather than a single monumental struggle, many smaller rocks can be set into motion, she said, running together to effect change across a number of sectors.

Louise praised the efforts of Birmingham writer Kit de Waal, who invested part of the royalties from her book deal into a scholarship for a student from a disadvantaged or minority background to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College (where I’m currently studying). Doughty described the huge enthusiasm that the scholarship has generated from other writers, who have donated time, money and mentoring services for the scholarship winner and finalists. All it takes is one person with a great idea, she said, around whom others will gather.

The salon looked to end on a low point, as the panelists lamented, once again, the strict gender divisions between boys’ and girls’ books. Jill spoke of the reluctance of school teachers to teach books with female protagonists for fear of alienating male students. Varaidzo pointed out that recent changes in the secondary school English syllabus has resulted in an absence of black British female authors, and that teachers needed encouragement to teach female and non-white authors.

Louise ended with slightly cheerier news – a book group of City bankers and lawyers, who realised that they were only reading books by men, and eventually put their suited hands up and asked her to recommend a female author. Jill and Louise argued that men needed to be encouraged to read more women’s writing, and that fears about boys’ poor academic progress shouldn’t result in only male-themed books being read in schools.

Emma concluded by saying that men needed to be included in the discussion on gender equality, and thanked the men present at the salon for coming along. For some reason, this moment stuck in my side like a thistle, nagging at me. Part of me senses that discussions about equality are best had by women talking on their own, at least to begin with, raising their own consciousness without the need to reassure or defer to men.

Image by Ashley Hall.

That said, Emma is right that discussions on gender equality can’t exist forever in a female-only sphere. Sooner or later, allies need to be found within the patriarchy. As Jill and Louise pointed out in their respective salons, little boys can be as constrained by gender norms as little girls, albeit with radically different outcomes in terms of their access to power. Feminism belongs to everyone – though it wouldn’t hurt men (me included) to shut up occasionally and listen, rather than being the first to offer their solutions on how best to change the world.

I’d like to offer a Great White Male Bravo! to Emma and Emily for organising a fantastic series of discussions. The energy generated in each of the sessions I attended was palpable – connections were made, business cards and email addresses enthusiastically swapped, and consciousness was raised. Perhaps timid kitten-heeled England isn’t as doomed as I thought it was.