Are women's book festivals part of the problem?

The moment they hit the press, the reviews for The Mirror And The Light were glowing. A “shoo-in for the Booker Prize” said the Guardian. “A masterpiece of historical fiction” according to the Independent. “Does it merit another Booker?” asks the Evening Standard, before concluding “yes it does.”

Then there was The Sunday Times. Of course the review dripped with praise. But buried in the copy was this surprising line: “Mantel, 67, is one of the country’s most successful and enigmatic female novelists.”

Try and flip it. “Martin Amis is one of the country’s best known male novelists.” “Male novelist Ian McEwan nominated for the Booker.” It sounds silly, doesn’t it?

It seems that even the most successful Booker winner in history, one of the most celebrated writers exploring the vast tapestry of Tudor history, still can’t exist simply as a novelist. That privilege extends to (mostly white, straight) male writers only. The sex of a writer is still coded as man, whereas women need to be explained. By emphasising her sex, the reviewer reminds us that Mantel’s not equal to the big boys of fiction. No matter what successes she’s enjoyed, she’s not in their club. She still belongs in the sub-genre “female”. 

We remain all too happy to label women who write as “female” first, “novelist” second. We put writing by women in sneered-at categories – chick lit, romance, historical. This prejudice continues, even though the best chick-lit takes on issues as complex as domestic abuse and addiction (Marian Keyes’ His Charming Man springs to mind), and even though historical fiction like Philippa Gregory’s can cleverly explore women’s oppression. 

Isn’t it time, I ranted at the computer screen displaying The Sunday Times review, that we saw women as writers first? That we stop talking about women writers and just talk about writers?

But there’s a problem here, and that problem is me. You see, I set up the Bristol Women’s Literature Festival (BWLF) in 2013 and this year we were due to return with our fourth programme until coronavirus intervened. I have created a festival that only invites self-identified women to speak. I am putting women who are writers together in a group and I’m putting it right there in the title: it’s a festival for women’s literature. Am I, then, part of the problem I decry when I see it in a newspaper review? 

Well, the simple answer is yes. Yes I am. The existence of festivals like mine, initiatives like the Women’s Prize for Fiction, shops like the Second Shelf, and events like Primadonna, which programmes men but majors in women, continue to create a separate category of “women writers”. We put women into the ghetto we spend our time rightly criticising.

However, what choice do we have?

Because across the literary scene, women remain underrepresented. Even though most readers are women, and most literature festival attendees are women, men still dominate our bookish landscape. 

The VIDA count gives one of the sharpest examples of gender bias. The 2018 analysis of who gets reviewed in books pages, and who writes the reviews, found that women are still not getting the column inches. Men dominated in the New York Review of Books, with 685 pieces compared to 256 on women. Closer to home, the London Review of Books was 504 to 258, and the Times Literary Supplement was 2,299 men competed with 1,445 women. 

Then there are the literary prizes — the Nobel Prize for literature has only been awarded to 15 women compared to 101 men (and the most recent woman to win it had to share with a man), while the Booker has gone to 19 women in its 50 year history. Festivals have improved a lot since I set BWLF up in 2013, having spotted a festival line-up that felt a “manel” was suitable to explain the “future of the world”, leaving women to their own special women’s writing panel. But there remains a lot of room for improvement. 

It’s important to recognise that many women embrace the moniker of “woman writer”. They’re interested in exploring women’s lives and stories, and embrace their relationships with women readers. Prizes and festivals like mine help to celebrate this. 

However, it’s impossible to ignore how in a sexist society, such a label comes with its own baggage. Yes, we can reclaim the term “women writer” but we all know that a woman writing about women’s inner-lives, or relationships, or family, are often judged differently to men who explore the same themes. Women’s writing is seen as domestic while men’s writing is seen as universal – just look at the different reception for Cusk or Ferrante, and Knausgaard. Women are seen as writing about their own lives, while men craft narratives. These sexist prejudices cling on, no matter that family and domesticity is universal and that women don’t only write about these subjects anyway. 

The reception of Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy tends to buck this trend. Perhaps this was what made the label of “female novelist” so shocking when applied to her. 

So long as women are marginalised and categorised as women first and writers second, then we are going to need to create spaces that prioritise and celebrate women’s voices. In the same way that, if we had a gender neutral “best actor” prize at the Oscars, women would never win again, if we didn’t have the Women’s Prize and women’s festivals, our work would get lost in all the male noise. It’s our best chance to normalise women’s writing, to build our own canon, and to provide spaces where women can be celebrated for their creativity, their practice, and their storytelling.

Sadly due to the pandemic the festival will no longer be a chance to have that celebration. But there are ways we can all take individual action to normalise women’s writing. You can set yourself a “Read Women” challenge, like Joanna Walsh did in 2014, and only buy, borrow and read books by women for a year. You can buy books by women as gifts – especially for the men in your life who are less likely to read women in general. 

Although this year the decision was taken out of my hands, in an ideal world my festival will never return (and not only because it’s a lot of work on top of two other jobs!). I want the Women’s Prize to shut its doors and for Prima Donna to take down its marquee. Because I want us to get to a place where the term “woman writer” stops being used — or, at the very least, stops coming with sneery baggage. I want women to win prizes in equal numbers as men, and to fill equal space in review pages. 

On that day, there won’t be a need to create spaces that uplift and privilege women’s voices and work, because our voices will already be heard and respected in ways equal to those of men. On that day, the term “female novelist” applied to Mantel will seem as weird as using “male novelist” for Martin Amis. She will simply be one of the country’s most successful and enigmatic novelists, and we can forget about the “female” qualifier for good.