She-Readers: my month without men

As a pessimist, I’m no fan of New Year’s Resolutions. But this year, I decided that I would set aside one month in which I would read only women. Why? There is a problem in the UK or English-language books industry, and it’s complex. It implicates every part of the publishing process, and it’s a combination of lingering sexism in the industry’s assumptions and the unconscious bias that this engenders, among literary agents, commissioning editors, booksellers and reviewers.

I could write about this all day, but let me run through the basics.

1) In practice, unconscious gender bias in publishing looks like this: fewer female literary critics; fewer women reviewed than male writers; under-promotion of women’s work in bookshops; under-representation of women in literary prizes. How about some concrete examples? The Samuel Johnson is the UK’s most prestigious non-fiction prize; the 2015 shortlist, enshrined more authors called Robert than authors with a vagina. Author Sophia McDougall asked Foyles over Twitter to address booksellers’ unconscious gender bias in their staff recommendations – prominently displayed in front of store as well as throughout the sections. Until then, Foyles wasn’t aware it had a problem; as soon as it looked, though, it discovered a 2:1 male/female bias.

2) All the research on UK and English-language readership shows that women read more than men, including in genres that are perceived as masculine or male-dominated, such as science fiction. Depending on which study we use, women read between 60 and 80% of all published fiction.If this is the case, why do they only write closer to 35-40% of it? And why, if women are buying the (vast) majority of the books, are they not treated as the target market?

3) For me, there are two key answers to these questions. Firstly, many believe that a glass ceiling still exists in publishing. It’s a hugely female-dominated industry, and so it’s likely that over time this problem will diminish – by sheer force of numbers, women will rule the presses in thirty years’ time. But for now, you need only look at the difference between a Society of Young Publishers conference, where 5 of 55 current committee members are male, and the Futurebook Conference, Europe’s largest publishing conference – when I worked the conference in late 2015, the overwhelming impression was of a horde of middle-aged white men. In the last three years, we’ve lost female publishers at HarperCollins, Penguin Random House and Little, Brown. These publishers, not exactly small fry, are now run by men – not because better qualified women were overlooked through sexism, but because statistically, it was inevitable that the best qualified replacement would be male.

Secondly, as I mentioned in my last post, there are constraints on women writers. Expectations – which determine what agents will tout, what editors will take on, what bookstores will buy and what their sellers will display – limit female writing to certain categories, particularly ‘commercial women’s fiction’. This means books about relationships and feelings, which are assumed to be of minimal literary merit, designed by Production departments to look homogeneous, marketed only to women and primarily during holiday periods.If an American man writes a book reflecting our society and culture today, revolving around a family saga, probably involving some marital infidelity and parental estrangement, it may well be hailed as a Great American Novel – think Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, James Salter. On the other hand, more or less the only woman to have been acknowledged as a Great American Novelist is Harper Lee. The other hundreds of thousands are saddled with the label of Commercial Women’s Fiction.

The root cause is unconscious bias, but active choices are made to sustain it. The Guardian’s John Dugdale realised last summer that novels designated as Literary Fiction were being rejacketed in order to ‘disguise’ them as Commercial Women’s Fiction, to trick those conditioned to buy the latter into taking a ‘serious’ book with them on holiday. Works with no significant young female characters suddenly featured just those creatures on the front cover.

And if you think you’re exempt from the effects of this, you’re wrong. No one is. I never realised, until I started recording everything I read; to my shock and horror, I was reading 2 male authors for every one female author. Since then, I’ve made a point of gender-equal book buying. Sometimes I have to wait an extra six months for a male-written title I’ve been wanting to read; never do I have to read less interesting ones; often I discover things I’d never otherwise have found – when men are reviewed more often than women, and sixteen women to forty-four men have won the Booker, of course most of my noted recommendations are male-authored.

This is the crucial point that is missed by (often irritable or even offended) resistance to this discussion – no one (reasonable) is claiming that, by some unhappy coincidence, every Booker judge of the past 46 years has been sexist, or that women never win the Booker, or that the male-authored winners were undeserving. The point they’re missing is this: if we scrapped the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and left it to the gender-imbalanced Booker and Johnson Prizes to anoint our most worthy writers, how disproportionately low would the number of critically recognised female authors become? Of course we need the Bailey’s. To turn to non-fiction, a recent Guardian piece examining the unconscious gender bias in history writing – women can do biography, perhaps social or cultural perspectives, but rarely politics and certainly never military history – asked historians both male and female for their largely thoughtful responses. Perfectly demonstrating the establishment’s failure to understand the nature of the problem, Simon Schama simply wrote this:

Germaine Greer, Susan Greenfield, Sherry Turkle, Ruth Scurr, Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Linda Colley, Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes, Laura Cumming, Jackie Wullschlager, Gillian Tett, Sheryl Sandberg, Naomi Klein, Suzannah Lipscomb, Jessie Childs, Karen Armstrong, Stacey Schiff, Helen Macdonald, Lisa Appignanesi, Suzy Orbach, Jenny Uglow, Bronwen Maddox, Daisy Dunn, Deborah Lipstadt, Stella Tillyard, Susan Orlean, Jill Lepore, Claire Tomalin, Flora Fraser, Mary Roach, Catherine Boo, Hermione Lee, Amy Wilentz, Jane Mayer, Carmen Callil.

The question, of course, is not how long the list of successful female history writers , but how much longer the list of their male counterparts. Beyond changing my own buying habits, there’s not much I can do to change these attitudes, but I can at least share with you my women’s April.

I want to start and end with Jane Eyre (1847). You’ve probably heard that 2016 is Shakespeare 400 – four centuries since the Bard’s demise. This year also the birth centenary of Charlotte Brontë, a pioneering female author initially forced to publish under a male pseudonym, who wrote a pioneering novel of female empowerment. The novel has a happy (Victorian times = married) ending that frequently frustrates today’s teenage readers, and involves some bizarre deus ex machina incidents involving long-lost cousins and large inheritances. But it remains a compelling, troubling and deeply truthful story because of Jane herself – a creature of anger, of restlessness, an extraordinary being refusing to be limited to the ordinary circumstances in which she is trapped.


“I am no bird, and no net ensnares me”

For a modern Jane, you could do worse than to look to Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (2013), the first book I read in my ‘women’s month’. Its narrator, a decent and untroubled elementary school teacher in early middle age, quietly reveals her burning fury at society’s disregard for the childless, unmarried, unfamous ‘woman upstairs’ – who simply exists on the periphery of others’ lives, central to no one’s. Jane Eyre famously rages, “Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!” This is the exact sentiment expressed by Messud’s 21st-century protagonist, beaten down by our own society’s rigid measures of success. Incidentally, The Woman Upstairs, helped by its misleadingly Downton-esque title, has a cover design to ‘trick’ you into believing it’s a work of romance fiction; a trick for which my boss fell, picking it up off my desk and exclaiming, “Commercial fiction?!” I suspect that a man could not have written this book, and this I mean as a compliment.

claire messud

“Female anger has never been so readable” – The Observer

I now recommend On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti, until recently director of Liberty, an advocacy group representing civil liberties in Parliament and the courts since 1934. I’ll admit that I picked this up for free at Penguin, and probably would never have read it otherwise. I’ll further admit that the book is not without its flaws. But I’ll also admit that Chakrabarti falls into a very small number of books that have made me change the way I see the world. I thought I knew where I stood on civil liberties – the terrorists etc are out there, and I’m not one of them, so no one cares what I Whatsapp to my friends, so who cares if the government collects it? The ‘what are we fighting terrorism for, if not this freedom?’ argument was of little interest to me. Chakrabarti, with respectful intellect and reasoning, with a mother’s anguish for our future society and with great human dignity, changed my mind.

She made me see that civil liberties and protections are not there for the society we have now, where only rogue bad apples abuse power – 1930s Germany, too, was a democratic and liberal society where only rogue bad apples abused power, until Hitler was democratically elected, in a world with no European Convention on Human Rights to overrule his legislation. For now, my Whatsapp sympathising with Syrian refugees is valueless- but if one day the masses of my data collected by the state fall into the hands of a regime that wishes to deport all mixed-race individuals, or all young females in London? We can’t wait until we need civil liberties to claim them. Who do we think we are, to assume that in Britain we never will?


Chakrabarti: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

The Bailey’s Prize is known for showcasing new female talent as well as lauding established authors. An excellent example is Laline Paull, whose debut novel The Bees came double-recommended by friends. She has produced a feat of imagination and compassion beyond many writers, taking us inside the life cycle and deeply regimented society of a beehive. If you took the dystopian gender inequality of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, threw in the ‘underdog rebel’ element popularised by The Hunger Games and added Naomi Klein’s urgent and maternal concern over climate change, you would have The Bees. Interesting that all three of these parallels involve other landmark works by women.


“Ambitious and beautiful” – The Telegraph

My word count is starting to mount, so I’ll just tell you emphatically to read this remarkably powerful novel, and go back to Jane Eyre. To mark ‘Brontë 200’, author Tracy Chevalier has edited a collection of short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, entitled Reader, I Married Him and entirely written by women, in homage to the debt such women owe to Brontë’s achievement. Launching the book at Foyles with an all-female panel, to a nearly all-female audience, Chevalier expressed her anxiety upon commissioning the stories that, drawing on this one iconic line, they would all come back the same. Her fears were unfounded. Talent from Lionel Shriver to Elif Shafak to Emma Donoghue has poured forth, producing everything from lit-crit satire to dark gothic horror to forbidden romance confessional. Never has the idea of an undifferentiated mass of ‘women’s fiction’ seemed so absurd.

The common theme running through the Reader stories is taken from Jane’s triumphant announcement itself: the woman’s agency, in an age when ‘Reader, we married’ or ‘Reader, he married me’ would have been a more common phrasing. It runs through every book I’ve talked about here, and I hope men and women alike will be inspired by the initiative – go forth, and find women authors. Read them, talk about them, pass them on. The odds in book publishing may be stacked against us, but we are free human beings, with an independent will.


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1 Response to She-Readers: my month without men

  1. Pingback: Make Reading Great Again: a New Year’s resolution for the outward-looking |

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