Even though writers are supported by a team of people at their publishing house, bringing a book into the world can sometimes feel a lonely business. There’s usually one person hunched over her desk, one name on the cover and one person travelling to interviews and events.
We feel so fortunate to be able to share the experience. During the most intense periods of editing A Secret Sisterhood, we stayed in each other’s homes for days on end, took walks together during our breaks, and cooked each other late-night bowls of pasta.
Now that our UK publication date is almost upon us, we’re working in the same room once more. This time our advance copies are stacked on the desk beside us, our names side by side on the cover – alongside Margaret Atwood’s, who generously wrote our foreword.
In keeping with the theme of A Secret Sisterhood, during our years of research and writing, a great many individuals and organisations have extended the hand of friendship to us – not least the readers of this blog. Your confidence from early on that this subject deserved to be explored in greater depth inspired us to write this book.
We’re hoping to meet lots of you in person during the coming months at some of our events. We’ll be interviewed by Michèle Roberts and Sarah LeFanu at Waterstones Gower Street; talking with Kate Mosse at the British Library; and delivering the keynote speech at the 46th Annual George Eliot Lecture. Details of these and other events can be found here, and we’ll be adding to it regularly over the coming days and weeks.
Just to add:
The UK edition will be out on 1 June. The US edition, with a slightly different title (A Secret Sisterhood: The Literary Friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf) will be out on 17 October. We’ll say more about this nearer to the time, but both editions are available for pre-order now. The US edition is currently heavily discounted if you pre-order it here.
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 email@example.com
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We had another full house last night at our second Something Rhymed Salon, when we talked about the devaluing of so-called women’s issues. Our speakers fed us a gloriously varied platter of food for the mind, and the conversation continued over madeleines, sparkling water and plenty of wine.