Kamila Shamsie: let’s have a year of publishing only women – a provocation
It is clear that there is a gender bias in publishing houses and the world of books. Well, enough. Why not try something radical? Make 2018 the Year of Publishing Women, in which no new titles should be by men
Friday 5 June 2015 12.45 BST
everal years ago, Martin Amis chaired a literary festival panel on “The Crisis of American Fiction” with Richard Ford, Jay McInerney and Junot Díaz. I was in the audience, and halfway 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, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri or any other contemporary female writer. A single reference toEudora Welty was the only acknowledgment that women in the US 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 too little, too late.
I think of this panel when reading yet another article or survey about the gender imbalance that exists in publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc. The issue can’t of course 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. One area in which this complexity can be examined is via literary prizes, which carry increasing weight in a book’s chance of success.
As a snapshot, let’s look at the Man Booker prize over the last five years. Ever since the women’s prize for fiction – formerly the Orange, now the Baileys – was set up 20 years ago in response to an all–male Booker shortlist, the Booker has been the prize to which the most attention is paid in gender terms, and the question of the prize’s judges and gender came up last year when only three women were on a longlist of 13. In response, one of the judges Sarah Churchwellsaid: “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 Booker administrators how many of the books submitted in the last five years have been written by women. The answer was, slightly under 40%. This isn’t an issue around the Booker alone. I’ve been uncomfortable with the imbalance between male and female writers in terms of the books that get submitted for prizes that I’m judging on a number of occasions.
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 who go on 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 has 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. The author Nicola Griffith recently published a study of prizewinning books on both sides of the Atlantic, broken down by the gender of their protagonists; it revealed that in the last 15 years, 12 of the Booker-winning novels have had male protagonists, two have had female protagonists, and one has had both male and female protagonists. The Booker does well compared with the Pulitzer across the Atlantic, which has had no female protagonist among its 15 winning books.
I could go on with the statistics and observations – the 64 male versus 36 female authors who make up the World Book Night picks of the last five years; the gendered decisions about how to package and describe male versus female authors; a recap of the Vida statistics that show how much more space male writers and reviewers receive in literary publications on either side of the Atlantic; the far greater propensity for male writers to pick other male writers when asked to recommend books. But at this point, I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there is 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 it is fair literary judgment, while when women recommend books by women it is either a political position or woolly feminine judgment. To these people I have nothing to say except, go away and read some Toni Morrison.
Enough. Across the board, enough. Let’s agree that things have improved over the last 50 years, even over the last 20, and then let’s start to ask why. Was it simply the passage of time? Should we all sit around while the world continues on its slow upward trend towards equality? Or should we step outside that 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 70s, of which Virago is the most notable; and the women’s prize for fiction. In part, what both the presses and the prize did was to create a space for women in a male-dominated world, giving voice and space to those who wouldn’t find them elsewhere.
I would argue that is time for everyone, male and female, to sign up to a concerted campaign to redress the inequality. Last year a number of readers, critics and at least one literary journal, the Critical Flame, signed up to a “Year of Reading Women” (for the Critical Flame it was female writers and writers of colour). Why not take it a step further? Why not have a Year of Publishing Women: 2018, the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK, seems appropriate.
Of course, there will be many details to work out, but the basic premise of my “provocation” is that none of the new titles published in that year should be written by men. I’ve been considering literary fiction so far but other groups within fiction – and non-fiction – publishing could gain from signing up too. The knock-on effect of a Year of Publishing Women would be evident in review pages and blogs, in bookshop windows and front-of-store displays, in literature festival lineups, 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 refused to sign up, then it would be for the literary pages and booksellers and bloggers and festivals to say they wouldn’t be able to give space to the male writers who were being published that year. Many male writers would, I’m sure, back the campaign and refuse to submit their books for publication in the given year, while also taking an active part by reading, reviewing and recommending the books that were published.
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 – they now have an annual women of colour count alongside their annual women count. That I’ve failed to dwell on 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 a 2018 Year of PublishingWomen should include debates 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 would it look like, this changed landscape of publishing in 2018? Actually, the real question is what would happen in 2019? Would we revert to status quo or would 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 is an edited version of one of The National Conversation pieces published by the Writers’ Centre Norwich.