Ten years ago, my husband and I checked into a dilapidated hotel in Paris. We were there to celebrate his 30th birthday. Our room was the size of a coffin and it smelled as if the guest before us had indeed been a rotting dead body. But it didn’t matter. We were there for the culture. Just kidding... We were there for the champagne.
"I’m just going to quickly check my email," I said as we headed out for the nearest café.
I opened my laptop. "Shit."
A corpse under our bed would have been less of a shock than the state of my inbox.
Ten years ago, I started a publishing house in Iceland, called Stilbrot. It was a decision taken on a whim. I’d been browsing in a bookshop one day when I realised that all the translated fiction—an important part of the Icelandic publishing landscape—appeared to be written by men. Where were all the women?
On closer inspection, I found that two-thirds of translated fiction published in Iceland was written by men. It annoyed the hell out of me. So, I took what little savings I had, set up a company that was to publish fiction by female authors from around the world, translated into Icelandic, and started to mentally prepare myself for moving back in with my parents once the venture failed.
The evening before my husband and I left for Paris, I launched a website through which people could subscribe to receive a book every other month. When my inbox was flooded with emails from enthusiastic subscribers, we were forced to spend our whole time in Paris inside the hotel room, replying to customer queries and arranging logistics while drinking beer from a can.
The Year of Publishing Women
As I write this, I’m back in Paris for my husband’s 40th birthday. I can’t help wonder what has changed in 10 years. Paris looks the same; my husband has developed crow’s feet; our hotel room is still the size of a coffin but with a little less air of cadaver about it. But what about the publishing landscape?
In 2015, the author Kamila Shamsie challenged the book industry to initiate a Year of Publishing Women (and only women) in 2018, the centenary of some women in Britain getting the vote. It was a novel way (pun intended) to address the gender imbalance in literature. Only one publisher took up the challenge.
The lukewarm response chimed with the news coming out of the industry at the time. "Publishing industry is overwhelmingly white and female," a Guardian headline ominously read (add the word "single" and it would have made a horror worthy of a movie adaptation). A survey of the workforce at 34 book publishers and eight review journals in the US found that 79% of staff were white and 78% female. The Man Booker winner Marlon James was not impressed, criticising publishers for too often seeking fiction that "pandered to that archetype of the white woman, that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia".
The data said it all: there was no need for a discussion on gender imbalance; women had become like locusts. They were everywhere. It was like The Handmaid’s Tale in reverse. Or was it?
I’m sorry, I was wrong
When I set up my women-only publishing house I had one rule: There would be no flowers, butterflies or hearts on the covers. I was of the opinion that the pastel-coloured artwork which so often adorns novels by women—and makes the books look more like Valentine’s Day cards than literature—was to blame for the fact that women’s fiction was generally judged to be inferior to the works of men.
Today, 10 years on, I’ve come to realise that I was wrong. Instead of solving the problem, my no-flowers rule was contributing to it.
Things are changing for the better. Women make up the majority of workers within the publishing industry. In Iceland now, 45% of translated fiction is written by women. But equality is not only about quantity.
Those who scorned Shamsie’s Year of Publishing Women shamelessly ignored the core of her message: there is still a significant gender bias in book awards, reviews (the latest VIDA Count—the annual tallying of gender statistics in reviews—still shows a shocking male dominance). The women may be doing the work, but the power and the prestige is still afforded to men.
Margaret Atwood said in 1971: "When a man writes about things like doing the dishes, it’s realism; when a woman does it, it’s an unfortunate genetic limitation." Judging by James’ remarks about "that long-suffering, astringent prose set in suburbia", the derogatory attitudes towards the style women write in, and their choice of subject matter, haven’t changed. By banishing flowers from the covers of my books, I was fighting for women’s equality on men’s terms. I was playing by their rules.
It’s not enough putting women on the agenda. We need to set the agenda. We need to change the patriarchal view of what is considered "literary worth". Instead of banishing flowers and butterflies, we should celebrate them; we should take pride in our "suburban" subject matters and make no apologies for our "astringent prose". Then maybe, in another 10 years’ time, we might see true gender equality in literature.
Sif Sigmarsdóttir is a bestselling Icelandic author and political journalist. Her first novel in English, I am Traitor (Hodder Children’s Books), is out now.