We were delighted when Sue Hampton, a former teacher who has written many books for children, offered to pick up on a point raised by several of our speakers: the gender divide starts young.
Having taught for nineteen years before I became an author, and subsequently visited 600 schools, I’m familiar with several statistics about gender issues in children’s books and literacy. Firstly, the majority of teachers are women (87% in primary, 62% secondary). Secondly, according to the National Literacy Trust, girls achieve better reading test results, enjoy reading more and spend more time on books, all of which impacts on writing standards. Thirdly, 15 out of 18 titles shortlisted in the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2015 were written by women and some of the bestselling novels for young readers in recent years were by J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer and Suzanne Collins.
In my career as a primary school teacher I was made aware of the drive to close the achievement gap with reading and writing tasks targeting boys. Eight years later I find that when I’m asked to work as an author with more able writers, these groups are predominantly female and beyond Y5, often overwhelmingly so. If we are looking for gender equality in children’s fiction, reading and writing, the evidence might suggest that it’s boys (and possibly male authors) who are at a disadvantage. I must also point out that Michael Morpurgo has created some of the strongest female characters I’ve encountered on the page. However, I would argue that if we look wider and deeper, while everything for girl readers may be pink, the picture is far from rosy.
In society today we see a gender divide across clothing, shoes, toys and books that presents girls as pretty princesses until they grow into teens who love boys and shoes, and boys as technically-minded fans of war and football. It’s a divide that limits everyone, generating characters as stereotypes and marginalising, or at least unsettling, the girl who is too independent-minded or physical for the market – along with the emotionally literate boy. I met a teacher who thought she had secured a writing future until her prospective agent told her she would have to change her strong, adventurous female protagonist to a boy – and this pink-blue divide, presumably as much a sales ploy as a well-intentioned outstretched hand to draw boys in, inevitably shapes attitudes and expectations around identity. This may explain why, when I ask classes Y5 – 7 to create a character to follow the powerful male baddie who begins my book The Dreamer, at least 70% of the boys imagine an avenging hero who will conquer him, and almost all the girls foresee a female who will redeem him with some kind of love.
Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, The Hunger Games, like the movie Brave, has a female action hero. But I’d argue that strength doesn’t have to fulfil traditional male criteria of competition and domination, and that peace and justice may be better served if children’s fiction celebrates alternative kinds of courage and power. I believe one solution to the self-fulfilling prophecies of blue and pink fiction lies in stories embracing diversity and individuality regardless of gender. It’s my intention to create boy and girl characters, whole and complex, who are uniquely and honestly themselves – just as we would like our children to grow up to be.
For me, the appeal of these writers follows from a lifelong interest in people, relationships and psychology, but also a delight in inventive language. ’Stripped down’ Hemingway-style prose seems to dominate the thinking of most creative writing schools today, but I’m more interested in the range of effects to be found in women’s writing. My problem with minimalist prose is that it’s an orthodoxy that often leads to a kind of ‘objective’ approach where the main characters remain distanced in a typically male, heroic (or mock-heroic) fashion.
I call this the minimalist fallacy.
I’ve always wanted to enter the minds of characters, so I find female writers who do that can take me to unfamiliar places/points of view. They see things from the other side, taking the road less talked-about. It’s an adventure – and, as a man I welcome the challenge!
Superficially, my experience as a novelist has confirmed gender stereotypes. So during bookshop signings I’ve noticed how the non-fiction sections seem to exert an irresistible gravitational pull on some men. In schools you might well think that all boys read comics while the girls study only novels. And when Sue and I talk to groups, it’s often the men who probe proofing/timeframe ‘inaccuracies’ whereas the women look for in-depth characterisation and developed relationships.
I believe we need to become conscious of how gender stereotypes are being transmitted, in order to resist them. In the minimalist fallacy the majority of readers have been persuaded to focus on plot-twists, mystery and action. A book is praised for being ‘clever’ and the selling-point is usually the story or ‘how it grabs you’ (notice the laddish metaphor) or its relevance to something in the news. And in academic circles we are warned to avoid sentiment because writing needs to be hard-edged and rigorous.
Personally, I don’t rate a book by its narrative devices or lack of stylistic ‘mistakes’. I know the ending to a Shakespeare play but that doesn’t stop me watching it again. And I really don’t care who leads the race, wins the battle or stands out from the crowd. What counts for me is the feeling tone, and that needs to be deep, complex, authentic, relevant to our society but also universal. I don’t believe writers are there to simply entertain, stage fight scenes or keep the reader guessing.
I’m not alone in this. Many men are more interested in relationships than action or technology. They might be good with computers or sound-systems but they also wheel buggies, play music, hug, and support LGBTQ. So rather than play to the well-armoured men, we need to talk about women’s writing to the other men who don’t necessarily identify with the stripped-down action male ego. That means talking about relationships and the internal view, about passion and commitment, but also characters with varied feelings that match what they’re going through. We have to say no to ice-cool Bond-types or Punch and Judy in our books. It also means re-evaluating the minimalist fallacy in our own reading habits, our creative writing courses and our reflective/critical thinking.
In the last of our posts from Something Rhymed salon speakers, Sarah LeFanu, provides some recent historical background. She is particularly well-placed to do so, since she can draw on her experiences as a Senior Editor at The Women’s Press and the editor of several anthologies of new writing.
Throughout the 1980s I worked at the London publishing house The Women’s Press, where we published books by women, for women. The whole venture was informed by a specific political remit, as we explained in a note that was printed in the prelims of the early books. This is how it appears in one of our first books, Cicely Hamilton’s Marriage as a Trade, a reprint of her 1909 analysis of the politics and economics of the domestic, or private, life: The Women’s Press is a feminist publishing house. We aim to publish books which are lively and original and which reflect the goals of the women’s liberation movement.
There was very little space in publishing then for the voices of radical women, for women who wanted to challenge the status quo. We saw that what women had to say about marriage, about domesticity, about sex and sexuality, about the workplace, about anything – that is, what they had to say about being women in a patriarchal society – what they’d said in the past and what they were saying now – was not what the establishment – the publishing establishment and the media – wanted to hear.
Women had to clear a space in which to be heard – and once they’d done that they had to shout loudly. The Women’s Press, Virago, Onlywomen, Sheba, and the magazine Spare Rib provided that space. They were all explicitly feminist. They were all explicitly political.
One of our early titles, published in 1978, was Michèle Roberts’s debut novel A Piece of the Night. I remember a reader writing in to ask us to pass on to Michèle thanks for the richness and the generosity of her prose, for using language as if there were no tomorrow. We went on to publish many works of literary fiction, both contemporary and earlier, and we published literary criticism and theory; again, we were publishing work that explicitly laid claim to a tradition, a heritage of women’s writing that over the years had been distorted if not erased. We published books by feminist scholars, such as Ellen Moers and Carolyn Heilbrun, who wanted to honour our literary foremothers.
In 1984 we published How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ – feminist science fiction writer, critic, and associate professor of literature at the University of Washington. It was a book that she had written for her students. The cover quotes snippets of what has been said over the years about women who dare to write serious, intelligent, challenging and beautiful books: She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed … She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. The bedroom, the kitchen, the family. Other women! She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that’s all she ever … She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi! She wrote it, but she had help. Robert Browning. Branwell Bronte. Her own ‘masculine side’. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. Woolf. With Leonard’s help … She wrote it BUT …
You can hear some at least of those sentiments still being spouted today.
In the mid-1980s we launched a feminist science fiction list. The thinking was twofold: one motive was pragmatic: I was teaching a course at the CityLit in London on feminist science fiction and there were almost no books available for the students. The writers from America – Joanna Russ, Sally Miller Gearhart, Marge Piercy and so on – weren’t published here, and there weren’t then that many homegrown ones. And the other reason was political, in line with the rest of our publishing. Again, in the first titles we included an explanatory note. From the first page of the prelims of The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ: This is one of the first titles in a new science fiction series from The Women’s Press. The list will feature new titles by contemporary writers and reprints of classic works by well known authors. Our aim is to publish science fiction by women and about women; to present exciting and provocative feminist images of the future that will offer an alternative vision of science and technology, and to challenge male domination of the science fiction tradition itself.
And challenge that tradition it did. It transformed and re-energised it.
At around about this time and throughout the 1990s, by which time I was no longer working at The Women’s Press, I was editing a series of anthologies of original short stories, some of them co-edited with my friend Stephen Hayward, three of which were published by Serpent’s Tail, and one by Lawrence & Wishart. Three of the ones I edited were women-only anthologies, but the rest were mixed. I recently took down copies of them from my shelves in order to check the ratio of women to men. Colours of a New Day: Writing for South Africa: 18 men, 16 women; Obsession: 7 men, 9 women; God: An Anthology of Fictions: 9 men, 10 women; Sex, Drugs, Rock’n’Roll: Stories to End the Century: 7 men, 9 women.
By contrast, last year’s Penguin anthology of modern British short stories, edited by novelist Philip Hensher, gives us almost twice as many men as women: 35 to 19.
I am constantly alert to the danger of women being crowded out by men. I check. I count. Why shouldn’t women writers be equally represented – in anthologies, or on publishing lists, or in review columns, or on shortlists for prizes? No-one believes (these days) that good writing is gender-specific, do they?
I suspect – and hope – that discrimination against women writers is not done deliberately. It’s more likely that it’s a symptom of an unconscious bias, an unconscious prejudice. What we need to do is to bring that unconscious prejudice into full consciousness, to name it as an expression of patriarchal culture, and to be unashamedly outfront and explicit about overturning it.
If you have any specific suggestions for ways we can overturn the forces that work to discriminate against women writers, please do share them by using the comments facility below. We will add them to the list we are compiling, which we will be posting up soon.
However, men’s views have dominated culture generally. Men have dominated the institutions of education and hence the creation of the literary canon – it’s only fairly recently that women were awarded university degrees and only in the 1970s that women generally began to run literary pages and journals and work en masse as publishers, editors and agents. Their work can still go unacknowledged. For example, D.J. Taylor, in his recent study (published in 2016) The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England Since 1918 discusses just a few women writers and critics and many, many male ones.
Women’s work still has lower status than men’s. This goes back to the Victorian division between work at home – women’s work – and work outside the home – seen as men’s work, though of course masses of poor women toiled alongside men in factories. Women’s lower status can be traced further back, to the ideas of the modern self propounded in the seventeenth century continuing the split between men being equated with mind/soul, and women being equated with the body, because of their role as childbearers. This split was founded in Greek culture and continued by the Christian Church. The body (femaleness) was viewed ambivalently because of its connection to sex, hence to childbirth and ultimately to death. Women got the blame for death’s existence. Patriarchal cultures, fearing death and female sexuality, seek to control and denigrate women as a result.
So the problem, the division, we are discussing tonight runs very deep.
Our capitalist culture, in which books are commodities valued only by numbers of copies sold, in which writers are brands producing these commodities, relies on gender division for marketing purposes. Men are still named as the pre-eminent intellectuals producing great literature, high art, whereas women are mostly relegated to a middlebrow ‘feminine’ category, a few exceptions simply proving the rule. No wonder some women writers still feel the need to deny their gender. Women do better writing about men and ‘male’ subjects. Women writing about domesticity, for example, can be written off as producing Aga sagas whereas men writing about domesticity ‘rescue’ the subject and can be hailed as sensitive geniuses.
The problem is a political one.
Perhaps you have some political solutions to suggest? Please share them using the comment facility below.
During her talk at the second Something Rhymed Salon, Arifa Akbar, formally of The Independent, gave us an insider’s glimpse of life as a literary editor.
She has generously allowed us to share it on here so that you can mull it over at your leisure.
Until recently, I was the literary editor of The Independent newspaper. I worked there for fourteen and a half years, many of these on the book desk, and in a decision make capacity, so that I was choosing who wrote reviews for our weekly books section, where they were placed on the pages, what labels were put on them, and who was reviewed.
Part of this process involved the management of so-called women’s fiction, women’s genres, women’s writing. These categories have been helpful to me at times to ensure that equal numbers of women writers are represented, to make sure they are on the books pages of a national newspaper. And further afield, the categories are useful so that we have the Bailey’s prize correcting the bias against women’s fictions because we know statistically men don’t like to buy books by women authors (that’s why we have the likes of JK Rowling, who sell their books under ambiguous gender identities). The category of women’s fiction is also helpful to publishers – Virago was built upon the idea of making space for women’s issues.
But concepts of ‘women’s fiction’, and women’s issues in literature, can be trapping too, precisely because we have created a nice tidy category that can be devalued by the literary establishment! It can be ‘put in its place’, side-lined in its own ghetto. Margaret Atwood’s fiction is suddenly women’s fiction; it’s not SF or dystopic fiction. Elena Ferrante dramatizes female friendship so she writes female fiction A builder who was recently laying my floors at home was a voracious reader and I saw that he was reading Paula Hawkin’s bestelling debut, The Girl on The Train. I asked him a few days later what he had thought of it and he said he enjoyed it but that it was ‘more a woman’s book’. Having read it, I had considered it to be a crime thriller so I asked him what he meant and he said it was ‘a book about a woman, so women would read it’. This made me think – when women read about men’s experiences through fiction, we so often universalise them, while the reverse doesn’t always happen. It’s certainly what I do with my favourite male authors such as Dave Eggers and Michel Faber – I extrapolate a universal story from their books, and their male protagonists.
Conversely, the domestic novel is only called the domestic novel when a woman writes it. Not when Philip Roth writes American Pastoral, all about one American family, or when Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about looking after the kids and wiping their noses in his series, My Struggle, or when Jonathan Franzen writes Freedom, about middle-class American life. These are considered to be state-of-the-nation-novels, but not when Anne Tyler writes them, or so many other women. And so-called women’s issues aren’t devalued either when they’re written about by men.
In 2011, Granta brought out an edition of the magazine called The F-Word. I wrote a long piece on women’s fiction at the time to mark this publication, asking what it is, and studying the sexual politics of storytelling. When I asked some writers and thinkers who I regard as staunchly feminist, and hugely aware of the issues, they told me they didn’t want to be part of that article. It seemed to me as if they didn’t want to be hounded by the same old questions – what are women’s issues, what is women’s fiction, what is a woman’s way of writing…
These questions can corner you as a woman in the same way that questions of race and writing do – some writers I know are forever having to answer the question, ‘are you an Asian writer or a writer?’ The ones who are sick of being seen as Asian writers, rather than just writers, have every right to be sick of it, but I would argue that they can’t escape being Asian writers. Just as women writers are both writers and women writers, dealing with universal issues, and also grappling with women’s issues.
So I would return to the central Catch-22 – once the categories of women’s writing, and women’s issues in fiction, are created, some use them as an excuse to take women out of the universal spectrum. I have a recent example from The Independent: we had a section called ‘Round-up’ in which five or six books under a specific category were reviewed together – so this month’s crime fiction, or romance, or historical fiction, or debuts. One week, we had a crime fiction round up that happened to feature five books by five women writers. This was flagged up to me by a sub-editor, and then, when I ignored it, by a more senior editor, and I was asked how this had happened, why it had happened that the reviewer hadn’t even included one man, and please could I make sure it didn’t happen again? It was even suggested to me that we should change the category name to ‘women’s crime fiction’. And yet, how many times had the reverse happened – that all the authors mentioned in so many lists and round-ups, are all men? And how many times is it queried?
I want to end by drawing back to my article on The F-Word, on how relevant feminism was to 21st women’s fiction, in which I quoted several acclaimed female writers, some of whom would say they write about women’s issues, and some who wouldn’t. I was struck by the broad range of opinions and differences between them and I thought their opinions might add to our discussion tonight.
Joyce Carol Oates, a writer who is constantly cited for her excellence in creating (often marginalised) female voices, said that she mines material from her imagination, not politics, and that the best literature endures beyond its political outlook: “Though I have been told by younger women – in fact, sometimes by men – that I have been a ‘model’ for them, of an imaginative sort, I had not felt this way about myself.
“In the short run, something like a ‘political’ vision seems essential; in the long run, it is probably irrelevant…. A revolutionary political vision will attract attention – initially. But if the literary work is not enduring, the politics will soon become dated. That is why the most seemingly apolitical of American women poets, Emily Dickinson, reads as if she were our contemporary, while the feminist polemics of women writers of the 1970s and 1980s have lost their audiences.”
Kate Mosse, founder of the then-Orange (now Bailey’s) Prize, reckoned that an older generation of women felt the burden to be standard-bearers of female fiction in a way that the new generation does not. Their imaginations are “freed up” she says, to write fiction that goes beyond the social realism of the kitchen sink.
Toril Moi, a professor of literature at Duke University and author of the feminist classic, Sexual/Textual Politics, strongly disagreed, but added that “I completely understand that some women can feel cornered by the question ‘are you a woman writer?’ People hardly ever ask that question of men.” The statement “I am not a woman writer” need not be anti-feminist either, she said. It is, in many cases informed by the desire to escape from the “other” enclave.
Urvashi Butalia, an Indian activist, writer and feminist, said: “Whether you like it or not, your politics and gender follow you into the world of the imagination”. And Margaret Drabble said she so often chose to write about women because “I write about what is important to me… I haven’t felt a duty or a responsibility to write fiction about women, and nobody has imposed this on me. I have written about women because their lives are important to me.”
The Ghanian-American author, Taiye Selasi, said that she had not made a conscious effort to create strong women characters in her fiction. They just “emerge on the page that way”, and Emma Donoghue said that she felt no obligation to represent women’s lives, yet a feminist consciousness remains: “I suppose to me a feminist novelist (of any gender) is one who notices gender.
“So you might say I am an obviously feminist writer in that my work often focuses on women’s lives; I try to tell neglected stories and many of them are women’s. But I would argue that I’m being just as feminist when I write about my male characters, because I am just as interested in how notions of manhood shape (and in many cases cage) them… I certainly don’t feel as if I’m working within a distinct tradition of women’s writing.”
Lastly, I want to quote Virginia Woolf, who believed in the ideal of literary androgyny. In her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, she suggested that “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.”
Please do continue the conversation by using the comment facility below.
Michael Caines of The Times Literary Supplement has kindly written up the panel presentation that he gave at the first Something Rhymed salon on achieving gender parity in the literary world.
If you attended, you might enjoy the chance to look at the infographics in more detail. And, for those of you who weren’t able to make it, this should give you some insight into the discussion.
There’s a really simple way to make men and women more equal presences in the book pages of newspapers, literary reviews and little magazines.
As Katy Guest put it to me recently, the “gender inequality problem” in the books pages could be easily solved, as she solved it on the Independent on Sunday, by commissioning approximately equal numbers of men and women.
Easy. So why don’t more editors do this?
To play devil’s advocate for a moment, there could be many reasons, and although most are bad, a couple perhaps represent genuine difficulties. Gathering together everything I’ve been told or have observed over the past few years, I’d say the drearier reasons include sheer inertia (not being bothered), denying that whatever journal you work for has a wider social responsibility (a kind of neoliberal argument, perhaps), and what one editor described to me as the existence of a “man pool” of reliable male literary journalists – ie, the veterans who have been plugging away for years. I’d be interested to know if any editors here can also testify to the existence of this “man pool”.
Perhaps it’s more or less the same excuse, but I’m also interested in the concept of editorial loyalty. There’s no rule to say you can’t change things overnight on a paper, but I suspect that many editors are quite cautious by nature, and once they have somebody they can trust working for them, they tend to stick by them. Hence the rise, a long, long time ago, of the regular columnist, the chief fiction reviewer or whatever, who happens to be male.
A trickier point I take from my colleague Mary Beard, who has been classics editor on the TLS for the past two decades, and has blogged more than once about the question of reviewers’ gender: her view is that there are several variables when you’re commissioning, and gender is just one of them. She’s interested, for example, actively interested, in finding reviewers from different backgrounds and ethnicities, as well as different genders. And she often commissions reviews of books on quite esoteric subjects. So, within her academic field, Classics, which is still somewhat more male than female, you’re looking at finding, ideally, the subset of people who know everything there is to know about Attic vases, then disregarding those who are the author’s friends, and the ones who can’t write for a general readership (assuming you already know if they can write or not). Of course, it would be wonderful to find that your chosen expert is female but in Classics the chances aren’t necessarily 50/50.
A similar example from the TLS: there was a spat in the letters pages several years ago between three experts in Madagascan history. They’ve all been around for a long time, it seems, and have no choice but to review one another’s books – hence the spat – and, would you believe it, they were all men.
That brings me to a further point specific to the TLS but which I suspect has broader implications. The paper I work for reviews a lot of trade books, but also a lot of books published by university presses. We need experts in very particular fields. But then you run into a problem like the one described in the TLS last year, in a review of a book called Women in Philosophy: What needs to change? Here’s the opening paragraph of that review:
“Women occupy 25 per cent of the posts in university philosophy departments across the United Kingdom. The figures are similar throughout the anglophone world. In the United States the proportion is 21 per cent, while Canada, Australia and New Zealand all have fewer than 30 per cent women philosophers. . . . this kind of imbalance has all but disappeared from areas such as English literature and history, and is nowadays largely restricted to the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).”
There’s a further problem when it comes to the professoriate, i.e. the highest echelon in academia. Women are particularly poorly represented there, although I don’t know if this is mainly a STEM problem or not. All I have is the survey reported by the THES in 2013, which found that although “women make up 45 per cent of non-professorial academics” in British universities, “it is men who still dominate at professor level”. The average was roughly “one in five professors in the UK is female”. Not all papers draw as many of their reviewers from academia as we do, but your media dons don’t spring out of nowhere – if you can’t find women in senior roles at universities, equally sharing in the territory of intellectual authority, you have a problem that can ultimately affect the media in turn.
Coming back to the point about what editors can do, please don’t take this to mean I’m saying: look at us, poor us, our hands are tied . . . I’m just interested, as I hope you are, too, in getting to the heart of the matter. That’s why the VIDA Count for me represents merely a starting point, and why we need more specific surveys of the same sort like Fiona Moore’s annual “poetry and sexism” count which focuses on the Guardian Review and reveals that, over the past couple of years, just under a third of the 45 collections of poetry reviewed in those pages were by women, and just under a third of the reviews were written by women.
Coming back to the VIDA Count, you could perhaps say that those publications that have more male reviews, review more books by men and so on are probably the ones more drastically affected by the broader cultural imbalance. On the TLS – which I have to use as an example not to single it out as a special case but just because I have direct access to the relevant data – I know that the weekly fiction pages have often achieved gender parity over the past few years. In non-fiction subject areas, the ratio varies enormously. I myself commission reviews relating to English literature, literature criticism, with a bit of theatre, film and television on the side; over the past year and a half, around 70 per cent of my reviewers have been women; this week I’ve commissioned six women and one man. This is not particularly difficult for me, although I do feel that there is such a thing as an Eng. Lit. man pool and have to acknowledge, somewhat grudgingly, their usefulness. The religion editor, on the other hand, can turn to the likes of Professor Alison Shell and Lucy Beckett on occasion, but is absolutely hemmed in by authorities such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Professor Anthony Kenny and many other male theologians of note.
You could take every subject we cover in turn if you wanted to be really thorough about this, but the point I’m trying to make is that we don’t necessarily need just more fiction reviewers or more literary critics. If you want to write for us, that’s great, you won’t be ignored. I suspect that on other papers as well as mine, though, that’s not where the big shortfalls are. So practically, I guess it pays to have an inalienable specialist subject or two, as well as a general expertise in the subject and the ability to swing a pen, as Dorothy Parker once put it – the least helpful letters I receive are the ones that just say “I can review anything”. And if you’re the woman who knows some subject back to front that only gets written about publicly by men – it’s time to push to the front.
In any case, for the purposes of this panel, we’ve been asked to think positive, basically – what can editors do, what can writers do, and what can we do as readers. I’ve tried to describe various editorial issues already; and the point of going into these post-VIDA statistics, via Slate and the rest, is that, as writers, it’s possibly best to think strategically about who you’re trying to write for and in what role. I also wonder if VIDA’s own statistics can be made to reveal a bit more information that could be useful to you, if you’re one of those writers.
This graph isn’t meant to say, oh look, where have all the men gone, by the way. You have to imagine that on top of each of these columns there’s another one at least as high, if not two or three times higher. The point is that over the past six years, these are the averages for the number of women each of these publications included in some way – asked to review, reviewed etc – and so even if nothing else changed, these would be the opportunities to be involved in this somewhat unreal world that each of these publications offers. Granta doesn’t do badly in percentage terms, for example, but it publishes very few writers compared to the New York Times Book Review, and of course they tend to be writers chosen for a particular theme, sometimes with a particular level of prestige. The TLS is a weekly, so by its nature it “involves” more female contributors and authors reviewed than something like the bottom ten publications put together. So, I stress, I’m not using this as some kind of magic to say, oh look, we came out top, but just to suggest that there may be ways of using this data constructively.
I’ll also throw in this more haphazard graph of my own devising.
This one’s inspired by the historical count VIDA carried out for the first time this year, looking back a century to survey the pages of the New York Times, I think it was. The reviews in that paper were anonymous in those days, as they were in the TLS. But nowadays the TLS archives show you who wrote what. Basically, as it’s the last week of April, I’ve hopped back from decade to decade, from 2016 back to 1906, counting and working out the percentages of female contributors from each end-of-April issue, up to the current one, that’s just been published today. Of course, there’s a danger of imposing an interpretation on this kind of jagged rising line, and there have to be strenuous caveats about my counting and calculating skills, as well as the drastically variable issues in between, but – without being absolutely sure what I would get – I’ve found that we’re on a pretty slow upwards trend, from 0, no women at all in 1906, to 38 per cent, which is where this week’s issue is. (It’s around the 1960s that you start to see familiar names appearing (not in print at first, because the paper wouldn’t start using bylines until the 1970s): AS Byatt, Susannah Clapp, Doris Lessing, PD James, Jeanette Winterson, Penelope Fitzgerald. That dip in the 90s is inevitably caused, as far as I can recall, by some special focus on politics, but I don’t think it’s typical of the decade. So 38 per cent – I think we’re going in the right direction, albeit, I openly confess, quite slowly.
And I hope that on the editorial side of things, more literary magazines and newspaper books sections and what-have-you could start to acknowledge this kind of history openly. (I started a similar exercise in the Spectator archives but was defeated by both a number of broken links and the depressing statistics I found for the few years I could access completely: 16 men to 2 women in 1956, in the last April issue, I mean; 32 men to 3 women in 1986; 33 men to 9 women in 1996.)
One further point about the numbers and how to use them: they don’t tell the full story, but we need it. Here’s another snapshot, an admittedly arbitrary one, of the latest issues of various publications that I’ve counted over the past week.
There’s a few things you could say about this, but as I’m on the Spectator, let’s note how they do OK in terms of numbers – it’s thirteen apiece in the TLS and the Speccie. Percentage-wise, they come pretty low. But you know what? Most of those female contributors are in the back half of the paper, confined to the so-called lighter stuff, while the men hog the front half of the paper. It’s not so bad in every issue, I should say, but it’s usually a man on the cover, and men leading the line. Confronted with that, a young writer, starting out, maybe needs to ask: do I say to myself, OK, I’ll hope for the radio column in fifty years’ time – or I can see there’s a gap there for somebody young and clever and, at last, female, to break the old dogs’ stranglehold on political affairs coverage?
Maybe that’s unrealistic – it’s just a speculation for your consideration. But it also reminds me to say that beyond the numbers, there’s the question of prominence and what roles in literary journalism women are “allowed” to take up. Alex Clark wrote a great piece about this for the Guardian in 2013. She, incidentally, raises the man pool idea (sorry to bang on about it) when she quotes Claire Tomalin looking back on her time as a literary editor on two publications in the 1970s:
“I tried very hard both at the New Statesman and the Sunday Times to find and use more women reviewers – but I also remember being attacked for not doing better. The truth is, there were many more men eager to review, offering to come into the office to talk about books, more male academics then, too. But I did bring in women – Victoria Glendinning, Marina Warner, Hilary Spurling, Alison Lurie, Anita Brookner.”
But Alex Clark also makes this observation, which I’m afraid still holds good today:
“There is also the sense that men can review well-known men and well‑known women, but that women are more usually asked to review women and rarely very celebrated men. My own experience more or less supports this; I have reviewed books, mainly fiction, for more than 20 years but I’ve never been asked to review Martin Amis or Jonathan Franzen, although I’ve interviewed both in platform events. . . .
The plot thickens when one realises that this is not because it’s exclusively men who are doing the commissioning; in recent years, the literary editor of a newspaper has been as likely to be a woman as a man. . . .”
The thing is, I don’t think literary culture would be any the healthier really if we had absolute gender parity across all literary pages everywhere, but the men got the big gigs, the Franzens and the Amises, while women only got the leftovers. Instead, I suspect that the whole books business, from writers and agents to publishers to editors and reviews and booksellers and distributors and PR agents to the most important people of all, the readers, needs a good shake. And in the longer term, I wonder if it’s as readers ourselves and with our fellow readers that we need to start. We need initiatives like Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen and the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival, keeping up the pressure in both the virtual and the real world. We need to think about what the concerns behind Kamila Shamsie’s proposal for a Year of Publishing Women mean, even if it’s an idea that you don’t agree with putting into practice, and I wonder if we need to treat the weird world of literary prizes very carefully indeed. In terms of the books pages themselves, data-driven surveys more specifically targeted than the VIDA Count represent a great step forward, I think, and I’ve tried to suggest some ways in which the aspiring literary journalist might look at the information VIDA offers and use it to her advantage. I wonder also if we need a women-only equivalent to Granta, something like a prestigious quarterly that concentrates on women’s writing, on finding new writers and matching them with established figures whose names will help to shift copies and get them into a prominent position on bookshop shelves. And if we must have prizes, how about an English-language equivalent of the Prix Femina, which can have a male or female winner but, crucially, one that derives its authority from a women-only panel of judges.
At Something Rhymed, we’re keen to hear your ideas for accelerating change. Please do send us your suggestions by using the comments facility below, and we will add them to the list that we are compiling.
It wasn’t intentional to publish both books in the same year but that’s the way the cards fell and I followed the bread crumbs up the path to find myself here today.
I began work on Springfield Road in 2006 – but before that I wrote poetry, short stories and songs in my band SaltPeter. Back in the early 1990’s I was idealistic and fearless. I’d been working on a novel and I thought I finally had something worth reading. I boldly booked a meeting with a well-known publisher.
I remember bowling into the glass offices alone, with no manager or agent, just me and my manuscript. I also gave him a beautiful mock-up of the book, complete with images, artwork and layout, which a designer friend had been working on with me. After he’d read it, the publisher was kind about it. Looking back, he was very generous, but then he said something I’ll never forget… he told me it was ‘too brave’ for a first novel.
The publisher closed that meeting by suggesting I read Bridget Jones and try writing chick-lit and then come back to him. That was the summer Bridget Jones’s Diary was buzzing like an incessant vibrating lipstick. I have never attempted to write a chick-lit, but that first rejection and those words ‘too brave’ stayed with me.
Springfield Road was initially sold to a major publishing house. After four years we went our separate ways, and now it seems that bravery was what was required. It was frustrating to watch my story chopped to bits in order to try and make it fit into another commercial genre, the misery memoir.
The bravest thing I could do was to take my book back, re-write and publish it my way and to never, ever give up. I think of 2006-2010 and being signed to a major publisher as my writer’s training ground; I learned how to fake that I had a thick skin, I learned some patience. Most importantly I learned to read my own compass and to be sure to stay true and tell my story my way.
Working with Unbound I have the sense of being in a team whilst also still being independent. Writing is hard work, the crowd funding process was hard work and now spreading the word about both books is hard work too.
But I have my Unbound family and editor Rachael Kerr behind me, I adore our working relationship and friendship. Burning Eye’s Clive Birnie has great passion for publishing, Burning Eye Books is boldly setting out to show us that ‘spoken word’ does work on the page.
They also publish an above average number of women. My golden rule has always been to go where the love is, there is a real love for books here.
When I was a little girl I spent much of my time upside down or spinning in circles. I have always had an awareness that there is more, ok to put it bluntly, I have always had an interest in getting out of my head to get into my head. As a teenager I was drawn to literature of a hedonistic nature.
I devoured books like Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, the work of William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, the Beats and Jack Kerouac.
I searched high and low for women’s stories, I read Carolyn Cassady’s Off The Road a miserable account of the reality of rent and babies, depression and poverty, whilst her husband Neal Cassady is On The Road with Kerouac enjoying orgies of pot and LSD.
Next I discovered Joyce Johnson’s book Minor Charactersabout 1950’s New York, she writes about her time with the beats, Allen Ginsberg and William and Joan Burroughs.
Again this is a portrayal of being an observer, of not being of any importance to the party, the movement or the revolution. As for William Burroughs, his wife Joan was shot, it was an accident, a trick that went wrong, but she is now listed as not much more than a footnote in the weird and wonderful Burroughs experiments.
These curious and curiouser worlds of experimentation and hedonism it seems have always been narrated by men and from the male perspective. I want to read about female ejaculation. Ha! Seriously, I want to read books by women about women on the front line and in the trenches.
I want to read books by women about the passion and the sacrifices we make living this writing life, writing this living life. I want to see more places set for women at that great table that is the feast of books.
I believe that if we do not start publishing more women, we only pass on half of our inheritance, half of our heritage, half of the story. If we only hear from the great white shark, we miss all the other diverse voices and fish in the sea.
It is no accident that I mostly read men when I was a teenager, back then it seemed to me that was where the party was. It took me years to stumble upon the great Jean Rhys and her vivid 1930’s boozy Paris.
One of my all-time favourite novels Good Morning, Midnight was hidden from me, overshadowed by the likes of Henry Miller and Louis Ferdinand Celine.
Writing Springfield Road I realise now I was trying to narrate a time and place in childhood, to capture it and hold it up in a jam jar for us to see the wings, as you might a butterfly, and then to set it free and watch it fly. I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read in the library, so I wrote it, to paraphrase Toni Morrison.
I wanted to write a story from how the world looked to me as the half caste kid, the alien with the green eyes in a brown face. Both Fishing In The Aftermath and Springfield Road burn with the frustration of longing to belong, of being invisible, yet pull on strength found in the freedom of being an outsider. I am wary of labels and boxes and lists, I feel they only serve to distract and divide writers.
A writer must only concern herself that what she writes today is better than yesterday, she must compete with the better work of her own making tomorrow. Every morning, man or woman, we surely all begin with the same fight: Writer V’s Empty Page.
Today there are millions of mixed race, cloud bothering, daydreamers, little girls spinning in circles getting dizzy in playgrounds all over Britain – And as I write this I say hail to each and every one of them, may they all be too brave.
If any of you have stories about your struggles to be accepted by the literary establishment, please do share them using the comment facility below.
It’s been a week since the last of our first series of Something Rhymed salons, which looked at ways to increase gender parity in the literary world. So now marks a good time to reflect on the ideas we’ve generated during our panel discussions.
The author and books blogger, Kendra Olson, who attended all three salons, has kindly offered us her summary of the series. Over the coming days, we’ll follow on from this by posting up some of the panellists’ talks and some other responses by audience members. And, finally, we’ll collate all the ideas we’ve come up with for accelerating change.
If you came along, now’s your chance to voice any suggestions that you didn’t get to make on the nights. And, if you weren’t able to make it, do get involved in the conversation by using the comment box below.
A Summary of the Something Rhymed Salon Series by Kendra Olson
Over the last month I’ve been attending a series of literary salons in Central London that examine the problem of gender inequality in the literary world and attempt to come up with practical, positive solutions. The salons were run by the talented and generous Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa of Something Rhymed, a blog celebrating female literary friendship.
Emma and Emily brought together an impressive array of panellists for the salons, including women writers and academics, literary editors, critics, performance poets, reviewers, presenters, and the founder of a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts. Regarding the lack of male panellists (Michael Caines of the Times Literary Supplement was the only man on any of the panels), Emma said that they had tried very hard to get male panellists—they initially sought to have equal gender representation–but did not receive much interest from men. This is not to say that men did not attend the salons, because they did—indeed, it seemed to me that each salon brought more men who were intrigued and motivated by the discussion; one of them was the talented Leslie Tate, who has written up his observations on the first two salons on his blog.
The starting point for the discussions was the VIDA count, which has consistently shown a striking imbalance amongst the rates of publication and reviews of male and female writers at the major literary publications. For those who don’t know, VIDA is an organisation representing women in the literary arts, which seeks to examine, publicise and address gender (and other) imbalances in the literary world.
Salon One: VIDA Count
Michael Caines spoke about unequal representation of female reviewers. Caines speculated that one of the reasons why women are poorly represented is due to editors already having a ready pool of tried and tested male journalists at their disposal. He said that we don’t just need more female fiction reviewers but more female reviewers across all categories–women tend to be given the “lighter” stuff whereas men are given more serious subjects, such as politics.
BBC presenter and writer, Harriett Gilbert spoke of her experience, saying that literary editors at magazines are far more likely to be women—hers are nearly all female. However, they still tend to choose books by male writers. Her theory is that while women are happy to read books by men and immerse themselves in the male experience, the reverse is not true (this is something that several panellists commented upon over the course of the salons). She believes the problem has far deeper roots than the publishing industry, going all the way back to childhood. After all, it’s easier for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be the reverse. She thinks this is why JK Rowling disguised her sex when writing the Harry Potter books, so that boys could safely walk around with her books. Because of this situation, editors need to ferret out the female reviewers, and female writers should be proactive in seeking reviewing roles. However, alternatives to traditional media should also be considered as publishers are now seeking a variety of publicity models for fear that print media is on its way out.
Maggie Gee (prolific writer and Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature) advised young writers to do what they’re interested in and go where they wish—all writers are earning less these days. She recalled Virginia Woolf’s envy of Katherine Mansfield, which Gee put down to there being so few opportunities available for women at the time thus making them direct competitors. Gee encouraged women writers to be supportive of one another. During the discussion she spoke to the value of smaller, independent publishing houses who could take risks with more interesting work.
The ever inspiring performance poet and author, Salena Godden, a friend of Maggie Gee, said she is wary of labels and that a writer must only concern themselves with bettering the work they wrote yesterday. She read from a poignant essay she wrote for the forbookssake website to promote the Women in Print campaign by Unbound. She also encouraged women writers to put themselves out there and enter competitions and submit their work without the constant expectation of being rejected.
“I believe that if we do not start publishing more women, we only pass on half of our inheritance, half of our heritage, half of the story. If we only hear from the great white shark, we miss all the other diverse voices and fish in the sea.” –Salena Godden, ForBooksSake
During the discussion, the Books Editor for Mslexia, Danuta Kean, stated that we live in a society where 40% of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities, however this is not represented in literature and publishing. She said that it was up to publishing representatives to change the situation.
Salon Two: So-called Women’s Issues
The second salon analysed why books about women and so-called women’s issues are so often devalued by the literary establishment. Why is it that the experiences and perspectives of women are seen as less than that of men? Is this because women have, traditionally, written about the home and family whereas men, as per their historical life roles, have explored, experienced and thus written about the wider world? Why is one experience seen as valid and not the other? Is this the reason for devaluing women’s literature, or are there other issues at play?
The journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar (formerly of The Independent) said that while the idea of women’s fiction is a helpful category, it is also a trap. It means you can be pushed to the side-lines more easily. Margaret Atwood suddenly becomes women’s fiction. When women read men’s writing we universalise it, but the reverse doesn’t happen. Conversely, the domestic novel is only domestic when a woman writes it, not when it’s by Philip Roth or Karl Ove Knausgård. She said that newspaper and magazine editors need to be aware of this and give equal space to women writers—she was unsure if these editors were indeed conscious of not doing so—and that women writers have a duty to make them mindful of this.
Bestselling historical fiction author, Karen Maitland, attended an all-girls school yet the only female novelist they read was Jane Austen, and she wrote about husband-hunting! Karen said that she became interested in historical fiction because of the beguinages (the medieval cities of women). She said that at historical fiction conferences, male authors are often given more credit than female authors when it comes to what are seen as male fields (weaponry etc). She was unsure if it worked the other way around. She also related an experience she’d had in a bookstore recently where the (male) bookstore owner had actually separated all the books by the gender of the writer (even those writers who used gender neutral pseudonyms) in order to ensure (one would presume) that his male customers did not “accidentally” buy a book written by a woman! Karen wondered if the advent of ebooks might actually change men’s buying habits as the book cover isn’t visible.
Booker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts, reminded us that women invented the novel. But most of our institutions – education, the law, the media etc. – have been dominated by men. She thought that the younger generation of men was changing, but that these changes need to be carried out in a wider cultural arena for there to be changes in the literary world. She said that having a women’s writing group is one of the things which has kept her going as it offers close critical reading and support.
Sarah LeFanu, former senior editor at The Women’s Press and one of the three members of Michèle’s writing group, said the issue of gender disparity in publishing has been depoliticised. Nowadays if you complain about it you’re seen as whinging. But the issue remains as political as it ever was. As an example of this she cited last year’s Penguin anthology of short stories, which featured 18 women writers and 30 men! She was concerned that women don’t take up all the space that should be available to them—particularly in this day and age when publishers are so risk averse. She said good writing does not have a gender bias. She also encouraged participants to write about these issues and to talk about why the books they enjoy aren’t being read and reviewed more widely.
Salon Three: Genuine Change
The final salon aimed to come up with solutions, not only in regards to gender disparity but also in regards to ethnicity, class, ability and sexuality. As one speaker put it, our literature should represent our society as a whole, and all the diversity within it.
Varaidzo, arts and culture editor at gal-dem (an online magazine produced by women of colour), said she’s been quite critical about the lack of scope in the British publishing industry. But, in some ways, her own journey has been relatively easy. She attributed this to growing up during the time of the internet and being able to navigate that space and talk to the people she wanted to fairly easily. Regarding the topic of education and children’s books, she noted that very few children’s authors manage to transcend gender—the boys go out and do things while the girls are introspective.
Orange Prize shortlisted novelist, Jill Dawson, who has guest blogged on SomethingRhymed, said the issue is as much about sexuality, class etc. as it is about gender. She said that working class women need more literary role models (currently the women represented in mainstream publishing are mostly from the Oxbridge educated class). As a young woman, she read a lot of African-American women as their writing spoke to her in a way that, for example, Martin Amis’s writing did not. What interested her was that they had a unique vernacular and voice. They too were struggling (Maya Angelou for example), and their words continued to influence Jill when she became a young, single mother. She encouraged people to think about who and what they’re reading, as changing our reading habits and reading more widely is one way of changing the literary landscape.
Former Booker Prize judge and Costa Award shortlisted novelist, Louise Doughty, who has also guest blogged on Something Rhymed, spoke to the benefits of the internet age. Since publications can be crowdfunded and there is online publishing, websites etc. For example, VIDA came out of the work of one person. The opportunities for writers now are small but multiple, and while not all ventures will be successful, some will be. While publishers claim to be desperate for new voices, at the same time their (conservative minded) sales and marketing teams are at their backs. These people can only go on what is already selling and are therefore always chasing last year’s successes and unwilling to take risks on new voices.
Melanie Abrahams, the founder of Renaissance One, a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts, said that while there may be a lot of noise made about a title online, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a lot of sales. Traditional publishing has changed very little over the years and the internet doesn’t always affect that. She claimed to know a lot of writers who are successful and don’t use social media at all.
During the discussion, an audience member who is a professor at both Goldsmiths and New York University spoke about the fact that she was able to choose her own readings for her students at NYU, but at Goldsmiths she had to teach a pre-devised syllabus. The Art of the Novel course, for instance, included only one or two female authors.
The issue of prizes came up a few times during the salons. In the first salon, Michael Caines wondered if the judging committees of literary awards should be assessed for gender parity. This was an issue which Maggie Gee and Michèle Roberts spoke of as well, recounting how they’d had to argue to get female novelists shortlisted when judging major literary awards.
While I’m still relatively new to the literary scene, I found the salons enlightening, thoughtful and very accessible–a delightful surprise as they could easily have turned out to be somewhat cliquish and depressing. In fact, the organisers did such a wonderful job of creating a welcoming, friendly and supportive atmosphere that I stayed until the end—and am very glad I did as I had lots of lovely conversations afterwards.
Reflecting on my own experience, I have to admit that I’ve perhaps read more men than women in the past, but in the last few years this has changed dramatically. These days nearly all of the books I read are by women—not because I’ve made a conscious decision to read more women writers, but simply because I’m lucky enough to benefit from many female literary friendships and I’m interested in getting to know the work of these authors and the work of the writers they enjoy. This is not to say that I’ve stopped enjoying the work of male writers—not at all—but perhaps the circles I move in as an author with a small, independent publisher means that I’m more likely to discover the work of female authors.
What do you think? Are you a woman writer, or do you work in publishing? If so, what has your experience been? Regardless, do you have an idea for accelerating change? Please do leave a comment below.
Please meet Varaidzo, the final speaker in this Thursday’s line-up. We’re really looking forward to her thoughts on how best to accelerate gender equality in the literary world.
We still have a few spots left, so please do join in the conversation by emailing us on SomethingRhymed@gmail.com to make one of them yours.
Varaidzo is a writer, editor and film programmer with a focus on storytelling through fiction, journalism and film. She is an editor at gal-dem.com, an online media platform produced by women of colour, and curates the gal-dem Winter Film Festival which showcases work solely by women of colour filmmakers. As a speaker, she regularly advises film and publishing organisations on how to engage young people and ethnic minorities with media industries. Her writing has appeared in Media Diversified and New Statesman, and her forthcoming essay on navigating black childhood in white spaces will be published in The Good Immigrant(September, 2016)
Melanie Abrahams, founder of an events company dedicated to diversity in the arts, will be joining us this Thursday at the third and final Something Rhymed salon. Here we will ask whether it is possible to achieve genuine change in the UK literary scene by attempting to use the master’s tools, as Audre Lorde put it, to dismantle the master’s house.
If you’d like to hear Melanie’s ideas for accelerating positive change and also share your own, please email us at email@example.com to book one of the last spots.
Melanie Abrahams is a curator, producer and speaker, who has channeled a love of books and words into projects and escapades. She has curated events and festivals both independently, and through her companies Renaissance One and Tilt, for the Bluecoat, Chris Ofili, Miami Book Fair International and Southbank Centre. As a literature producer, she has shaped poetry videos for BBC’s The Space with Chris Redmond, and has toured with writers including Ali Smith, Amiri Baraka, Patience Agbabi and Caryl Phillips. This year she partners with the British Library to present London Is The Place For Me, a Caribbean festival of literature and liming, as part of a wider project exploring the theme of independence, and contributes fifty one-to-ones, and supporting public events, to writers and practitioners around England.