On noticing

The Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced last week. Six good books - I’ve read lots of them - by six men. The prize rewards audacious and original work, says the press release.

The week before the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction revealed its longlist offering ‘something for everyone’. There were, as Olivia Laing pointed out on Twitter, more men called Robert on the list, two, than there were women, one.

So that’s 18 books singled out for praise in the space of a week only one of which was written by a woman. Why is this? Are women incapable of writing audacious and original fiction? Not much cop at sharing their experience of the world?

Reading is a subjective beast. We live in a patriarchal society, we are used to respecting the output of men, of thinking that men have more right to put words into the world and to be heard.

I don’t know why that surprises us. Women have only been considered intellectually capable of voting for 100 years, it wasn’t that long ago that we could be shut up in asylums if we inconvenienced our menfolk. Those people who come to your door to get you to change your electricity are trained to talk to the decision maker and told that that will always be the man.

Remember that tweet from the FA about how the England women’s football team having won their bronze medal could now go back to being mothers, partners and daughters?

My husband has never once been asked about his childcare arrangements but I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked ‘what have you done with your child?’ when I’ve been out late at night or even, horrors, abroad.

I’ve been touring with my book a lot over the last few weeks – I’m typing this from a hotel room in Cheltenham – and people ask me a lot about how my husband and son are coping without me. I suspect male authors are not being asked the same questions or being told to be grateful that their wives are capable of working the dishwasher.

Take a look around you in a restaurant. Note how the male waiter will interrupt a table of women, but a female waiter will hover respectfully until the men have finished their anecdotes and are ready to order. I bought two pairs of (cheap) shoes recently and the male shop assistant asked if I’d get in trouble with my husband. It’s almost funny but can you think about that for a moment, please, men reading this? Can you imagine what it feels like for it to be fairly continuously drip fed to you that your achievements are not important compared to looking after the men you live with and that you are not in charge of your own economic destiny?

All small stuff, no doubt, first world problems compared to other places in the world where you can still be raped as a punishment or shot for going to school. I know I’m speaking from a place of privilege. I have a very nice life and don’t do a bad job of navigating not just overt sexism but the insidious tendency to not see women. My point is that even from my well-educated white perspective everything is still so continually all about the men.

Some time ago I was listening to two men discussing literature on Radio 4. They agreed with each other that all the stories have been told, again and again. I filled with rage as I carried on chopping my chorizo. Really? I thought. How culturally privileged must you have to be to think that all the stories have been told?

I wondered how I would feel about that if I were a Somali girl listening to the radio in the detention centre in an attempt to improve my English. What would I think about these two white men agreeing with each that there is nothing left but to write homages to Nabokov?

When voices of authority claim all the stories have been told, those with untold stories might question their value.

I’m not in favour of quotas, by the way. Despite the highly convincing nature of her evidence, I didn’t agree with Kamila Shamsie’s provocation publishers should only publish women for a year. It seems both joyless and unfair to me to exclude a group, even if that group is inclined to get more than its fair share.

The book is the thing. There should be no criteria other than its quality.

I don’t want to be a killjoy. I don’t want to distract from the achievements of the shortlisted authors or blame the prize, I just wonder what it means and what I really want to know is, don’t they notice? Conference organisers, prize judges, pretty much anyone who has a role in deciding who gets to be heard: don’t they notice the roll call of mainly white men?

Of course, the cultural dominance of men is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I commission profile pieces for The Bookseller I have to intentionally concentrate on widening the net. I have to pay attention.

And we all should. We all need to ask what it means. Not just as book people but as members of our society.

In a piece in the Guardian Eimear McBride, a previous winner of the Goldsmiths Prize and the only woman on this year’s judging panel, said they noted ‘the low number of eligible entries by women’ but that she hopes it is a blip.

Hopefully it is. But we need to keep noticing. And pointing it out.

Cathy Rentzenbrink is The Bookseller's acting books editor.