It’s almost a quarter of a century since the infamous Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing affair, one of the lowest points in the history of literature and publishing in Ireland.
A colossal work, the anthology was billed as a groundbreaking achievement in the study of Irish literature stretching back 1,500 years, one which avoided the “narrow sense of the word ‘literature’” by including a variety of writing, from political speeches to pamphlets and analyses.
Within a couple of days of its publication, though, it became clear that the anthology had avoided something alright: the role of women writers in Irish literature. Widespread criticism followed, and the work became an international joke.
This was 1991, the year of the controversial all-male Booker Prize shortlist. Not a good year for women writers.
Nearly twenty-five years on, it is safe to say that a cock-up on the scale of the Field Day debacle is unlikely to be repeated. But sexism in publishing and the world of literature is very much still with us, apparently.
Women writers are being let down in all aspects of the publishing process, “from pitch to publication”, according to Sarah Davis-Goff, co-founder of Dublin-based Tramp Press.
“The numbers show that women are being marginalised from the first time their manuscript is read by an agent or publisher, to when the work is being edited and produced, to the marketing of the work, to its being reviewed,” she wrote in an email.
Is this, however, a fair assessment of the current literary landscape? Is it still sexist?
Getting Read, Getting Published
The statistics aren’t really there to determine whether there is gender bias in the early stages of the publishing process, from manuscript submission, to being read by an agent or publisher, through the editing process.
What is available is anecdotal evidence. Such as first-hand experiences like that of novelist Catherine Nichols, who says she received more than eight times the number of responses to her manuscript when submitting to literary agents under the male pseudonym “George” as she had when submitting under her own name.
“Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me,” Nichols wrote in an essay for Jezebel about her experience.
“George’s work was ‘clever,’ it’s ‘well-constructed’ and ‘exciting.’ No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty,” she wrote.
George received 17 requests for his manuscript, while Catherine had received only two for hers, making George “eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book”.
Reviewing and Getting Reviewed
The statistics show that George would also have a greater chance of getting his book reviewed than Catherine would with hers.
Vida, a US-based organisation championing women in literature, conducted a survey in 2014 of a wide range of the major literary publications. It found that the majority of reviewers and contributors were male, and that the majority of reviews were of books written by men.
Some publications fared better than others. Women made up 52 percent of book reviewers in the New York Times Book Review. In Tin House, 60 percent of the book reviewers were women.
Other publications, though, were seen to let down women writers. Only one-fifth of the authors reviewed in the Nation were women. Women made up less than one-third of the pie at the Times Literary Supplement. In 2013, the Atlantic reviewed 17 books by men and only three by women.
Vida shows its own bias, however, when it reports that “in a surprising upset, Ninth Letter regressed from their wonderful 2013 count of 38 percent male writers to publish 66 percent male writers overall in 2014.”
Describing a gender imbalance of 38 percent male writers at a literary publication as “wonderful” seems to go beyond the intended goal of Vida, which is “raising consciousness not quotas”, as the organisation’s co-founder, Erin Belieu, was quoted in the Guardian as saying.
And this point about raising awareness is an important one, because sexism in publishing is often described as an unconscious act, by people who aren’t aware of their supposed prejudice. Women are very much included in this.
It’s generally accepted that the publishing world is predominately female; this goes for literary agents as well as editors. (Catherine would have a greater chance of making a living in the industry than George would.) Vida has yet to conduct a count on this area of gender imbalance.
Reaching the Bestseller Lists
One area where male writers might like to see quotas brought in, God bless them, is book sales. There’s no question about it: women far outsell men.
In this week’s New York Times Best Sellers list, 13 of the top 20 books were written by women. (One was co-authored by a man.)
So far this year, male writers spent 12 weeks at the top of the holy of holies; female writers spent more than twice as long up there: 27 weeks.
Women wrote 60 percent of the top 10 bestselling books in all categories on Amazon.
Of the top 10 bestselling works of fiction in the UK in the last month, 70 percent were written by women, according to the Nielson Bookscan. John Grisham was the only male writer who managed to break into the top five, at number three.
Similar figures can be seen in Ireland. In the last week of September, six of the country’s top 10 bestselling books were written by women, according to the latest figures from Irishwriting.ie.
Author Kamila Shamsie’s “provocation” in the Guardian earlier this year to make 2018 the Year of Publishing Women would certainly not improve the sales of books by men.
It would, however, in her view, go a long way towards redressing the “gender bias in publishing houses and the world of books”.
“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,” she wrote.
The Year of Publishing Women
UK-based And Other Stories became the first publisher to accept Shamsie’s “provocation” and announce that it would publish only books by women writers in 2018.
Publishing Director Stefan Tobler said, via email, that And Other Stories had been publishing more men than women. “Fascinating, adventurous writing from Latin American men seemed to be our forte so far,” he said.
The publisher has been encouraging more submissions by women, he said, “but by taking up the Year of Publishing Women we want to shout that all the louder”. The response has been a mix of “complete agreement and scepticism”.
Given that they far outsell men, do women writers really need a leg-up? For Tobler, it’s not about the commercial end.
“What we want to draw attention to, with the Year of Publishing Women 2018, is that the best literary women writers should be given the same importance as their male counterparts,” he says.
Ruth Hegarty, president of publishers’ association Publishing Ireland, says that maybe something like Shamsie’s Year of Publishing Women is necessary.
“The campaign raises awareness,” she says. “It does change your view when thinking about new titles. If you’re thinking about trying to commission, for example, a balanced list, you may well make interesting publishing decisions that you just wouldn’t have done before.”
But while Hegarty is in favour of quotas as a way to effect change, she isn’t sure of going the whole 100 percent.
Tobler says the Year of Publishing Women 2018 won’t be as radical as cutting men out completely.
“We’re still accepting submissions by men; if we love the male writer’s book enough I’d be surprised if we couldn’t find a spot for it on our list before or after 2018,” he said. “Taking up the challenge is about taking part in the discussion and saying that yes, we think Kamila Shamsie has a very good point.”
And in terms of a gender imbalance of literary prizes, Shamsie does have a point. Books written by men are more likely to win.
In 2014, only three of the 13 books longlisted for the Man Booker Prize were written by women.
On further investigation, Shamsie found that in the last five years, just under 40 percent of books submitted to the prize were written by women, and that the percentage of winners who are women is exactly 40 percent.
While four of the last five jury chairs have been men, she notes that the gender split among jurors is almost even.
The problem, she concludes, is “one of judges who judge without gender bias but are hamstrung by publishers who submit with a strong tilt towards books by men”.
It’s not just about the gender of the writer, it’s also about the genders of the protagonists.
Shamsie cites a survey conducted earlier by author Nicola Griffith, which not only found that books by men were more likely to win top literary awards, but that few of the winning books had women protagonists.
Of the 15 books that have won the Man Booker Prize since 2000, only two were about women. Of those that have won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, none were about women.
“Women aren’t interesting, this result says,” wrote Griffith. “Women don’t count.”
What of the women writers who won these prestigious prizes with books that weren’t written about women? Do they count?
Should a female protagonist be another criterion for books in the Year of Publishing Women? How far should the exclusion go?
Germaine Greer, the academic and writer, was critical of the women-only Orange Prize for Fiction now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, quipped that someone would soon establish a prize for writers with red hair.
There are other imbalances inherent in the awarding of literary awards that deserve as much attention as the gender misalignment.
Class is a huge factor when it comes to winning the Man Booker Prize, according to data compiled by the Guardian in 2012.
More than 60 percent of winners were privately educated, and 29 percent went to Oxbridge. Only 7 percent hadn’t attended university.
Similar patterns were found on judging panels: 56 percent were privately educated, and 54 percent went to Oxbridge.
So what about a Year of Publishing State-Educated Writers? A Year of Publishing Non-Graduate writers? No?
Lack of Influence
The Year of Publishing Women is an extension to last year’s campaign initiated by writer Joanna Walsh, #readwomen2014, which, obviously, encouraged readers to read women writers for a year.
According to a recent Irish Times article by Tramp Press’s Sarah Davis-Goff, the encouragement to read more women writers and be influenced by them is urgently needed.
She conducted her own survey of a 100 submissions sent to Tramp Press. She found there were 148 influences referenced by both male and female writers, but only 33 of these influences were women writers.
“This hapless exclusion of the writing and experiences of women is really disheartening,” she wrote.
But it doesn’t make her blood boil.
What does make her blood boil is “actual, articulated sexism”, like when she’s talking to a man at a reading or a book launch, and he tells her he doesn’t read female writers, and that “he doesn’t see why he should.”
Sinead Gleeson, editor of the Long Gaze Back, an anthology of short stories by Irish women writers, was similarly irked when someone asked if she thought male readers would be put off reading the book because there were no male writers in it.
It’s a question that left her aghast, she said on the Irish Times‘s The Women’s Podcast, during a discussion on sexism in publishing.
“If you don’t like short stories, if you don’t like great writing, you don’t have to read this book,” she said. “The gender of writers has nothing got to do with it.”
Sticking to Our Own
According to a survey by the book-focused social media site Goodreads, gender has a lot to do with reading patterns.
Inspired by the #readwomen2014 campaign, Goodreads looked at a sample of 40,000 of its active members – 20,000 men and 20,000 women – to see who was reading whom.
When it came to fiction published in 2014, “on Goodreads, we are still sticking to our own sex”, the report said.
Of the 50 most popular books read by men in 2014, only five were written by women. Mirroring this, of the 50 most popular books read by women in 2014, only five were written by men.
Anne Enright, the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction, a winner of the Man Booker Prize, the Rooney Prize, the Orange Prize, the Davy Byrne Short Story Award, spoke about the issue of women writers not being taken as seriously as men at the launch of The Long Gaze Back.
She talked amusingly about the different receptions a sentence like “the cat sat on the mat” might get if it were written by a man and by a women. Written by the former, she argued, the sentence has gravitas in the eyes of the literary world; written by the latter, its fluff, twee, all wrong.
Aren’t We Better Than All That?
Is the Irish literary scene not a more gender balanced one than most, though?
Davis-Goff, in her email, says she doesn’t have the figures to answer this question definitively, but the information that she and her Tramp Press co-founder, Lisa Coen, have gleaned would suggest that no, we’re not closer to gender parity.
However, a look at the genders of the winners of some of our prizes for literature would suggest something different.
Mary Costello won the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book of the Year for Academy Street, making it all square at 2-2 between female and male writers.
The Davy Byrne Short Story Award, which comes with great prestige and a €15,000 pay cheque, was awarded to Sara Baume last year, making it three in three for women writers.
Eight of the last 10 Hennessy New Irish Writer titles have gone to women.
Surely this is evidence, that things are not as bad as they seem.