For an industry so female (according to a survey carried out by bookcareers.com, nearly 85 per cent of people working in the publishing industry are women), women writers remain woefully under-represented. It's not that there aren't plenty of them, let's just say it's an issue of... airtime.
At one point, last year looked as though it may have provided something of a tipping point: the UK’s top 10 bestselling authors of literary fiction featured only one male writer, Haruki Murakami, and was topped by Margaret Atwood. But, despite their dominance in that one genre, they made up less than half of the slots in the Bookseller’s overall UK Top 50 bestselling authors of 2017. That list was topped by David Walliams. Only three women writers made the top 10. Cast your gaze a bit further – to the review pages, for instance – and the story is equally bleak, with the majority of reviewers and reviewees being male.
While strides have undoubtedly been made in terms of female representation over the years, unconscious bias has too often stopped women from receiving the same opportunities in the literary world as their male counterparts. When did you last hear the phrase "men's commercial fiction", after all?
While strides have undoubtedly been made in terms of female representation over the years, unconscious bias has too often stopped women from receiving the same opportunities in the literary world as their male counterparts. (When did you last hear the phrase "men's commercial fiction", after all?) In 2015, this bias made headlines with the shocking story of Catherine Nichols, who found that submitting her manuscript under a male pseudonym brought her more than eight times the number of responses she had received under her own name.
“The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless,” she wrote in an essay for Jezebel. “My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me – Catherine.”
For many reading, the sidelining was all too familiar and her story simply confirmed a creeping suspicion many budding female writers share. Her anecdote was hardly a new one – it’s well known that in the 1840s, Charlotte Brontë published her first works under the pen name Currer Bell and her sisters Anne and Emily, under Acton and Ellis. JK Rowling opted against using her first name, Joanne, when selling her Harry Potter books. The literary world was and is still very much a man’s world.
Virago (originally known as Spare Rib Books) was created in 1973, as “the first mass-market publisher for 52 per cent of the population – women. An exciting new imprint for both sexes in a changing world.” And yet, 50 years later, the issues it sought to address remain. Author Kamila Shamsie was so fed up of the disparity in book awards, reviews, top publishing jobs and prestige afforded to authors, she challenged the book industry to publish only women in 2018 to mark the centenary of women being given the vote. Only one publisher, Stefan Tobler of the Sheffield-based company And Other Stories, took up the challenge, and will be publishing solely female authors throughout 2018.
It’s not, however, all doom and gloom – the past few years have been some of the most exciting for female writers and the representation has been twofold: women are not only making themselves heard, but using their books to highlight the work of women who have been historically silenced. Over the past year, there has been a huge surge of feminist books placing the spotlight firmly on the women history has forgotten, such as Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo; Nasty Women by Hannah Jewell; Young, Gifted and Black: Meet 52 Black Heroes from Past and Present by Jamia Wilson; and Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison. Writer Zing Tsjeng, whose own book will be released on International Women’s Day, is also using her debut offering to highlight the voices of women history left behind:
“There are so many amazing women whose stories and work need to be celebrated more,” Tseng says. “I'm currently writing Forgotten Women: The Writers and it's incredible how many female authors were sidelined or marginalised by history – women who wrote amazing works of literature and yet struggled to get the recognition they deserved. In the age of the internet, there's no excuse not to educate yourself more about their work to make sure they don't remain forgotten in the 21st century. Go to your local library! Find an out-of-print edition on Amazon! Ask your bookshop to recommend you a woman writer! There's so many ways to engage with women's work, and all of them are fantastic because reading more can never ever be a bad thing."
Clarissa Pabi, manager of literature podcast Mostly Lit and senior marketing executive at Ebury Publishing, agrees, saying we’re in a time where women’s stories are no longer as easy to regulate to the shadows.
“Women are increasingly using their voices to speak on subjects in authoritative and creative ways,” she says. “I think brands, institutions and events organisations, cannot afford to side-line these voices – particularly when it comes to authors who are custodians of culture.”
There's no doubt strides are being made by women inside and outside the industry to ensure that women's stories are being told and, equally importantly, heard. It is, after all, one of the reasons we created The Pool in the first place. With that in mind, we've partnered with Hay Festival to find 100 books by women from the last 100 years that deserve a lot more attention. With the help of your submissions, we’ll compile a list celebrating great books of all genres, fiction or non-fiction, and for all ages. And, hopefully, with the help of initiatives such as this, we’ll get a lot closer to achieving parity for female authors.
To celebrate the work of a woman or women (published in 1918 or after), you can nominate a book here. Aside from celebrating your favourite female authors, everyone who nominates a book will be entered into a prize draw to win 10 of the selected titles. #Vote100Books