Are you 'noticing' publishing's gender bias?

Are you 'noticing' publishing's gender bias?

Calling the question

 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?

My colleague at The Bookseller Cathy Rentzenbrink is not only our acting books editor but also is project director for Quick Reads and a highly regarded author for her release from Picador, just this summer, of a deeply felt memoir of fidelity and loss, The Last Act of Love

When she comes to us, all of us, as she has done in her essay, On noticing, we listen. And for good reason. Here is one of the most measured, thoughtful evocations of the subtle dominance of male culture in publishing we've read in some time. Published in The Bookseller's blog section, it's not paywalled, and I urge you to read it.

Let me quote her at a bit of length to set up what has triggered this piece, I want you to have the context:

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?

She notes that Eimear McBride of the Goldsmith's judging panel mentions in The Guardian "some discussion of the low number of eligible entries by women." So actually there was some "noticing" going on in that case. But Rentzenbrink seems unimpressed with that fleeting comment. I have to say, I wish McBride had favoured us with a bit more insight into this, too. Is she saying that a raft of entries by women arrived late and were thus rendered ineligible? Or is she making a reference to actual qualitative viability of women's writings as opposed to men's? Were left without knowing and I'd certainly like to hear more from McBride and/or other judges on the point.

How we talk about these things

One thing worth "noticing" is what makes Rentzenbrink's essay so valuable in terms of tone and approach: No snark. 

In fact, I'm reminded in reading her of the concerns voiced with near-regret at times by Jonathan Emmett in his #CoolNotCute campaign for awareness of how we're presenting picture books to children and the quiet way that a workforce proudly 80-percent female may—without noticing—offer more good content for girls than for badly needed boy readers. Emmett is often at great pains to explain that the last thing he wants to do is suggest that women aren't rightful and fiercely valuable leaders in our publishing lives today. Of course they are. And he works hard to point out that men aren't stepping up to take roles in publishing for kids as they should, either. 

And here is Rentzenbrink, similarly asking for a fair hearing and noting that she, too, must "notice" the many moments of bias that we frequently simply accommodate and move on:

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?...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.

Unlike the quick slaps in the face issued 'round the clock by our publishing holier-than-thou's on Twitter (which usually start with "if women ruled the world" know those tweets), Rentzenbrink honours this important, pervasive problem by slowing down, expanding its reach into other parts of life, and asking us to truly notice, notice what's going on, sensitise ourselves to the signs and signals all around us:

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.

And thus it's our topic today for #FutureChat. I've asked Rentzenbrink to join us. She's @CathyReadsBooks on Twitter.

What's more I'm delighted that she, and Emmett, will be among authors working with us on 30th November in our inaugural FutureBook Week Author Day event. I hope hope you'll join us there if you can be in central London at the time.

Today, come to #FutureChat and tell us what you notice in terms of quietly accepted patterns and traditions of thought and interpretation and description and—maybe most of all—assumption. They're around us all the time, everywhere, maybe more heavily cloaked and accepted in a tradition-laden industry like publishing than in others.  

This story was written as the walkup to the #FutureChat of 9th October. Join us each Friday live on Twitter at:

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Quotes and quotas

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.

Rentzenbrink might surprise some in her stance on her sister author Kamila Shamsie's call for "Year of Publishing Women" (and only women). I'm very glad that Shamsie is going to join us at Author Day.

As Bookseller editor Philip Jones wrote in June in On the bias about Shamsie's commentary:

As a jumping off point for a wider initiative, the provocation merits further industry-wide input. Whatever the Year of Publishing Women can become, it needs to be about more than just consciousness raising. Turning discussion into action is not easy, but a truly lasting influence should be to re-establish publishing at the forefront of this issue—a position it should never have ceded.

What he's getting at there is important: To what degree does trafficking in the ideas and emotions of our times put an extra degree of responsibility on publishing to get its house in order? Can those who trade in the better thoughts of women and men get away with the same casual treatment of gender issues we might see in many other walks of life? 

And it's interesting to read Rentzenbrink's take on that summertime moment now:

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.

As Rentzenbrink has placed her observations so graciously on the line, I'll do the same, and say that it's in her next line that I think I find a question of my own:

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

Is the implication here that a criterion of "men first" or the superiority of male creativity is in place?

I don't think so. And by that I mean two things: (1) I don't believe that there's a malevolent conscious attempt at male dominance by most men or women in such settings as prize evaluation; and (2) that I don't think that this is, surely, what Rentzenbrink intends to say.

I can't see, even in tweediest publishing, an adoption of get-the-guys-the-prizes as a criterion, even unspoken. The cryptic McBride isn't going to be in such a camp, I trust, nor do I think many judges of major prizes are harbouring deliberate desires to place male work over female. Of course, as Rentzenbrink tells us, the book is the thing, and my guess is that most competition judges would quite genuinely say, if asked, that they believed they'd looked at entries in just such a light.

And that's the efficacy of Rentzenbrink's thesis, isn't it? We all mean well, as George Bernard Shaw had Jack Tanner tell us (The Revolutionist's Handbook, it follows Man and Superman).

We're simply not noticing; we have to do better.

It's too bad, in fact, that the smallness of our industry means that we can't simply cloak an author's identity for prize judges and have them deal with texts without any knowledge of who has written them. This would give them the fairest chance to appraise the work without an opening for their biases to kick in.

But as it stands today, I don't think there's a "shadow criterion" (I made that up, not to put it into Rentzenbrink's mouth) at play here, just a lot of what Rentzenbrink has rightly discerned: Not noticing. And that's not acceptable.

  • Am I wrong? How do you think the sorts of bias we know are all around us are operating? 
  • Is Rentzenbrink right that it's a matter of us noticing more? 
  • Then what? What have you noticed? And what have you done about it?

See  you in #FutureChat.

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