Gender studies

I was dismayed to read both Nicola Griffith’s research into the gender of award winners and Kamila Shamsie’s proposal of having a Year of Publishing Women.

I don’t think statistics are always the best way to be able to judge shifts and trends in books, but since Griffiths’ have been widely discussed this week and Shamsie cites many in her piece, here are some more I’ve found:

The Costa Book Awards last year were won by 4 women and one man, with the overall prize going to a woman. The Costa novel award in 2013 was an all-female shortlist. In the 2012 Costa Book Awards, all categories were won by women.

The Desmond Elliott Prize this year is an all-female shortlist, and will have been won by a woman for the past five years.

The Granta Best of British 20 Under 40 list in 2013 (which Shamsie herself is on), was made up of 12 women and 8 men.

Finally the Booker: if we look at the last ten years (rather than five, as Shamsie does), the prize has been awarded to a woman five times, and a man five times. Nicola Griffiths appears to discount Hilary Mantel’s achievement in being one of the only writers to have ever won the Man Booker Prize twice, because the two novels she won with were about a man. 

Are we really reducing ourselves to the suggestion that the gender of a writer, or the characters that they’re creating, should in any way be a consideration in how we decide which books to publish? My job is to publish the best books I can find as well as I possibly can. It would be insulting to writers if I judged their work on anything other than its literary merit. 

I should make it clear, if it isn’t already, that I am talking about fiction: too much of the debate in this area is muddied by a lack of differentiation between fiction and non-fiction.  This is certainly the case with the Vida statistics – Vida never seem to have broken their findings down into fiction and non-fiction categories, and yet more often than not it is fiction writers who seize on them as evidence of a gender bias in media coverage. My guess is that if they did break these down, the review coverage (and reviewers of) fiction books by female writers would be much more balanced.  

One of Shamsie’s statistics is interesting, though: the fact that only 40% of Booker submissions are books by women. There may be many reasons for this. Here is one: The success of the Orange/Bailey’s Prize means that when we are publishing female writers, we can submit them for this prize, and for the Booker. With fewer prize options available for male writers, it is not unreasonable to decide to submit a male writer for the Booker over a female one, in order that both the male writer and the female writer get an equal chance at a major prize.  

In fact, I think most publishers will tell you that it is easier to publish new literary fiction by women than by men. Not only are there more women-only prizes, but male writers are more limited in where their books get coverage, and while the books of the year roundups may still have a gender bias, in recent years a community of female writers and people wanting to champion female writing has emerged on social media and in the wider culture which has proved a huge boost to female writers – no such equivalent new movement exists for men. I often feel I have to work twice as hard for the books I am publishing by male writers. 

Where fiction is concerned, the idea that women writers are underserved by publishing or literary culture is a myth, and we should be confidently refuting it. We should be proud of how well we publish women writers. Publishing has lots of problems we should be debating – this isn’t one of them.

Hannah Westland is the publisher of Serpent's Tail