The year of women

The year of women

Kamila Shamsie asks whether the industry is ready to put women on the map when it comes to literature

Several years ago at the Jaipur Festival, Martin Amis chaired a panel on “The Crisis of American Fiction’”with Richard Ford, Jay McInerney and Junot Díaz. I was in the audience, and half way through the discussion leaned over to the person sitting next to me and said: “Clearly the crisis of American fiction is that there are no women in it.” It’s not just that there weren’t any women on the stage. In the entire discussion, which lasted nearly an hour, there was no mention of Toni Morrison, Marilyn Robinson, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri or any other contemporary woman writer. A single reference to Eudora Welty was the only acknowledgement that women in America have ever had anything to do with the world of letters. Díaz, near the end of the hour, made the point that the conversation had centred on White American males, but it was much too little, much too late. I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc. I know the reason I had been struck by it was that it seemed to me less an anomaly than an extreme version of a too-prevalent attitude by men—including male writers—towards women writers. 

To clarify the matter, I thought it might be useful to do the unwriterly thing of turning from narrative to statistics. Over the past five years, the Guardian has asked 252 cultural figures, almost all of them writers, for their year-end book recommendations: 162 among them listed one or more works of fiction. Of those, 56% of the men chose only books written by men; 32% of women chose only books by women. And 15% of men chose only books by women, while 29% of women chose only books by men. If male writers are more likely than women writers to value books by writers of their own gender, what does that mean for judging panels, for book blurbs, for the championing of lesser-known writers by better-known writers? What, in short, does it mean for our literary culture?

While considering these matters, there is one more set of figures that is significant. Of the 252 people who picked their books of the year, only 37% were women. In the past when the issue of women’s representation in literary pages has been brought up, it’s very often women editors who, while voicing their frustration, mention how much more likely men are than women to agree to review or judge or make lists of favourites. Suzi Feay, writing in 2011, stated: “You’d think it would be a pretty easy ask: a nomination for a (not the) book of the year. Yet in the first fortnight, not one female author approached said yes, while virtually all the men did. They had no trouble believing their views were worth having.” I asked Ginny Hooker from the Guardian Review whether the comparative reticence of women writers was the reason the Books of the Year contributors were mostly men. She said: “ We always try to get a balance, and although I don’t have accurate records, my sense was always that more women said no to contributing than men did. But I suspect that if you looked at the number of people I’ve approached, it would probably be more than 50% men—something to do with who is in the public eye.” It’s a triple bind. More men than women get asked to judge, nominate, recommend—and of those who are asked, more men than women agree to do so, and those men are more likely to recommend yet more men.

Power structure

This is not to say that any experience within publishing can be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Like any effective system of power—and patriarchy is, over time and space, the world’s most effective system of power—the means of keeping the power structure intact is complex and involves all parties. One area in which this complexity can be examined is via literary prizes, which carry increasing weight in a book’s chance of success in the world. As a snapshot, let’s look at the Man Booker Prize over the past five years. I want to point out that in looking at several literary fiction prizes over the past 10–15 years, I’ve noticed that the Booker does better at approaching gender parity than many other prizes; even so, if you were to look at the Booker longlists, shortlists and winners of the past five years there’s an easy conclusion: it’s gender biased. More men than women make up these lists. 

The casual observer might conclude that the judges have their patriarchal hats firmly on their heads when making their decisions. Except the primary problem may not lie with the judges. The question of the Booker judges and gender came up last year when only three women were on a longlist of 13. In response, one of the judges, Sarah Churchwell, said: “We read what publishers submit to us . . . [If] publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture.” So I asked the Man Booker administrators how many of the submitted books in the past five years have been written by women. The answer was slightly under 40%. This isn’t an issue around the Booker alone. I’ve more than once been uncomfortable with the imbalance between male and female writers in terms of the books that get submitted for prizes that I’m judging. Because publisher submissions remain confidential, this part of the equation remains uncommented on when judges are held to account for the gender imbalance.

In the five years in which slightly under 40% of the submitted books have been written by women, the percentage of women on the longlist has been slightly over 40%. The percentage of women on the shortlist has been 46%. The percentage of women to win the prize has been exactly 40%. In this period, although four out of five of the chairs of the Booker juries have been men, there’s been an almost even split of male and female jurors. The picture that starts to emerge from these statistics is one of judges who judge without gender bias but are hamstrung by publishers who submit with a strong tilt towards books by men. But, as is so often the case with statistics, there are other figures that complicate the story. 

Author Nicola Griffith recently published a study of prize-winning books on both sides of the Atlantic, broken down by the gender of their protagonists; it revealed that in the past 15 years, 12 of the Booker-winning novels have male protagonists, two have female protagonists and one has both male and female protagonists. The Booker does well compared to the Pulitzer across the Atlantic, which has had no female protagonist among its 15 winning books. All this backs up a comment made in 2013 by Mslexia founder Debbie Taylor: “If a woman adopts a male perspective, it seems their story is still more likely to be respected and read as universal.” Of course we don’t know how many of the Booker-submitted books had female protagonists, but it remains instructive to look, by contrast, at the books that have won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. In the past 15 years, four of the books have centred on a male protagonist, four on a female protagonist, and seven on a combination of male and female protagonists. This, I would argue, is a consequence not only of having women-only submissions, but also of having women-only judges. 

The blame game

I could go on with the statistics and observations but at this point, I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there’s a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men that’s fair literary judgement, while when women recommend books by women that’s either a political position or woolly feminine judgement. To these people I have nothing to say, except: go read some Toni Morrison. 

The question isn’t: “Is there a problem?” It’s: “Are we recognising how deep it runs and do we know what to do about it?” The easy response is to always blame someone else. Prize judges can blame publishers, who can blame the kinds of books that cut across men and women’s reading tastes. Literary editors can blame the women writers who don’t take up chances that are offered to them and the women writers can blame the editors who shift the blame rather than acknowledging they don’t ask as many women to begin with. We can all say, men don’t just have more confidence about picking their books of the year, they also have more confidence about writing big, bold novels—and then we can work out that “big and bold” is only more appealing than “subtle and with emotional depth” because literary cultures historically formed by men allow a patriarchal view to look like a universal truth. 

Well, enough. Let’s agree that things have improved over the past 50 years, even over the past 20, and ask why. Was it simply the passage of time? Should we all sit around while the world continues on its slow upward trend to a world of equality? Or should we step outside that wholly fictional narrative of progress and ask what actually helped to change literary culture in the UK? Two things come to mind: the literary presses of the 1970s, of which Virago is the most notable; and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. In part, what both did was to create a space for women in a male-dominated world, giving voice to those who wouldn’t find it elsewhere. But crucially, they also brought questions of female exclusion or marginalisation into the conversation. In our time we are not without organisations that do the same. Two that come to mind are VIDA, the literary organisation that focuses on women in the literary arts, and Mslexia magazine.

Now that the gender problem has been recognised, analysed, translated into charts and statistics, it is time for everyone in our literary culture to sign up to a campaign to redress the inequality for which all sectors of the culture bear responsibility. Last year readers, critics and at least one literary journal, the Critical Flame, signed up to a Year of Reading Women (YPW). Let’s take it a step further—let’s have a Year of Publishing Women. And 2018, the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK, seems both near enough and distant enough to be feasible.

A Ronseal approach

Of course there will be many details to work out but the basic premise is precisely what it says on the tin: all new titles published in that year should be written by women. I’ve been looking at literary fiction publishing here but I’m sure other groups within fiction—and even non-fiction—publishing could gain from signing up too. The knock-on effect of a Year of Publishing Women will be evident in review pages and blogs, in bookshop windows and front-of-store displays, in literature festival line-ups and in prize submissions. We must learn from the Suffragettes that it’s not always necessary or helpful to be polite about our campaigns. If some publishing houses refuse to sign up, then it’s for the literary pages and booksellers and bloggers and literary festivals to say that their commitment to the YPW means they won’t be able to give space to their male writers that year. I’m not discounting the fact that many male writers will back YPW and decline to submit their books for publication in the given year, while also taking an active part by reading, reviewing and recommending the books that are published. 

Of course taking on one form of exclusion while continuing to replicate others should be an unthinkable idea. VIDA has recognised that power privilege on either side of the Atlantic is not merely about gender but also about race—it now has an Annual Women of Colour Count alongside its Annual Women Count. That I’ve failed to mention race until now doesn’t mean I don’t recognise it as an even more lopsided and neglected matter than gender within publishing. And that’s by no means the only other area of exclusion. If we are to truly claim that we’re pushing back against inequality, it’s essential that the build up to the YPW should include conversations, debates, research, deep thinking and commitments to ensure that the YPW doesn’t end up looking like the year of publishing young, straight, white, middle-class, metropolitan women. 

What will it look like, this changed landscape of publishing in 2018? Actually, the real question is what will happen in 2019? Will we revert to the status quo or will a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our preconceptions of what is unchangeable? I suggest we find out.


This piece was commissioned by Writers’ Centre Norwich for The National Conversation - a series of events exploring the state of the literary ecology today. Join the discussion at: