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OPINION

The very real sexism women writers face

The problem of sexism in the publishing industry has been starkly exposed, says novelist Louise O’Neill. Now what are we going to do about it? 

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By Louise O'Neill on

“That’s great,” I would say, as another friend told me that they’d found an agent, or sold their first novel, or received a huge six figure sum as an advance. I was being genuine – I was thrilled for them, I knew how hard they worked and having read early versions of their novels, I knew that the quality of their work was of such a high standard that it deserved the accolades it was receiving. But after a while I noticed something – it seemed to be my male friends who were being given the big advances, who were being described as visionaries and the “next big thing”.

I thought I was being paranoid until I saw a fascinating story that Jezebel published last week about an author, Catherine Nichols, who became so disheartened with the lack of interest in her work during her search for representation, that she decided to conduct an experiment. Instead of submitting her manuscript under her own name, she did so under a male pseudonym. The results were startling. “George”, her alter ego, received queries to read the full manuscript 17 times. When Nichols used her own name (with the exact same covering letter and sample pages) she only had one similar request for every 25 submissions. The disparity in the language used in each case was striking as well. Catherine was told “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”, while “George” was lauded for his “clever” “well-constructed” “exciting” writing. 

The article was met with dismay and from many, surprise. Surely, they argued, publishing is one of the least sexist industries? The traditional thinking is that the world of publishing is populated predominately with women, and this is true – most of the editors and publicists and agents that you meet do tend to be female, and studies show that the majority of people who buy and read fiction are women. But VIDA, an organisation which compiles data about male and female representation in literary publications, released their findings for 2014 and the extent of the imbalance between how often male authors and female authors were reviewed by major newspapers and magazines was clear. Only 29 per cent of books reviewed in The New Republic and The Nation were by women,  falling to a mere 27 per cent  at The Times Literary Supplement. Every year when the VIDA report is released, editors at these publications clamour over one another to find excuses for their dismal figures. Women don’t pitch as often as men do, they claim. They give up more easily, they’re less likely than men are to re-submit if they are initially rejected.

Marian Keyes can write one of the best books I’ve ever read on the topic of addiction with Rachel’s Holiday and be dismissed as 'chick lit'

Some of these arguments might have a basis of truth, but I think it’s more pertinent to look at how female authors and their work is considered, the place that it holds within the industry, and the way in which it is too often excluded from the established canon.

It begins with literature for children and young adults, which, as children’s author Melvin Burgess pointed out, seems to operate on a belief that “girls will read books that have boy heroes, whereas boys won’t read books that have girl heroes”. Booksellers report that parents refuse to buy books with female protagonists for their sons, saying “Oh, he won’t read that, it’s about a girl.” This can even extend to a refusal to read books that are by a female author, as Joanne Rowling discovered when the first in the Harry Potter series was about to be released in 1997 and she was encouraged to use her initials to obscure her gender. 

This marginalisation of novels written by women, with female characters, and exploring traditionally “female concerns” is also evident in adult fiction. Tramp Press, an independent Irish publisher, asks all authors who submit to them to list their literary influences, and have since reported that only 33 out of 148 names cited were female. Still don’t believe me? The next time you go into your local bookshop, ask them to show where they keep the commercial men’s fiction.

No luck? 

Of course not. Male authors don’t write “commercial men’s fiction”; they write thrillers, they write crime novels, they write science fiction, and mysteries. They write novels that are worthy of our respect, not like the “fluffy” novels that those silly lady-novelists churn out, covers adorned with stilettos and pouting lips, all ghettoised into a blindingly pink corner of the store. This is why an author such as Marian Keyes can write one of the best books I’ve ever read on the topic of addiction with Rachel’s Holiday and be dismissed as “chick lit”, and an author such as Nick Hornby is feted for exploring “important” themes of masculinity and male relationships with High Fidelity and  About A Boy.

It’s all part of a greater problem where being a woman is seen as “less than”, that to express an interest in topics that are conventionally associated with women such as makeup or fashion is seen as shallow and silly. We think it’s charming if our daughters are tomboys but are horrified if someone says our sons are “girly” in anyway, as if being likened to a woman is the greatest insult that you could give. As Gloria Steinem said, “We've begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”

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