Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images

OPINION

Sexism has a stranglehold on publishing. How can we undo it? 

The figures are stark, as another new study reveals the sexism that pervades the publishing industry, but how can we address it and, crucially, move forward, asks Anna James

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By Anna James on

In a 2014 lecture for the London Review of Books on the public voices of women, Mary Beard began with this statement: “I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to shut up – telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of The Odyssey.” She recounts how Telemachus tells his mother to go upstairs for “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all”. And here is our core problem: throughout history, we have been told that women’s voices are worth less and should submit to the words of men. 

In its most recent issue, Mslexia, the magazine for women writers and writing, surveyed 2,254 women about their attitudes to submitting their work for publication and have termed the results “the submission iceberg”. One in three women surveyed submitted less than a fifth of their work and the most common reason why was that they didn’t feel it was good enough. You can add to this the 19 per cent who are afraid of rejection, the 31 per cent who don’t think anyone will want it and the 11 per cent who don’t think their work will ever be good enough. Only 24 per cent said that nothing prevents them submitting. And these statistics aren’t just down to inexperience: 67 per cent of the women surveyed had been writing for over six years, 72 per cent are writing with the aim of publication and 88 per cent had submitted something at one point. 

It is easy to bark that women are hamstringing themselves: “See!” shout vindicated editors. “How can I publish women when none are submitting? It’s not my fault!” But Mslexia’s results are indicative of the constant and insidious messages that women get about the worth of their voices – women authors like Catherine Nichols, who received 17 requests for full manuscripts from 50 queries submitted to publishers as “George” and only 1 from 25 as Catherine.

A more personal example: I am sat in a coffee shop writing this. A man I don’t know came over, uninvited, and asked me what I was working on. I explained the general gist and told him about VIDA counts. He said that I was wrong and that VIDA, which he freely admitted he hadn’t heard of until I mentioned it, must be biased, as it was compiled by women. He knew I was informed about the subject, admitted he knew nothing and yet insisted that I was wrong and kept talking to me until I moved seats. 

Men are taught that their point of view is always important, that someone will always be interested in their perspective. They will submit work that is barely relevant, or not fully formed

And, of course, having fewer submissions from women is no excuse for editors not to solicit and commission from women writers. Actually very little content for newspapers and journals is from the slush pile – surely a key part of an editor’s job is finding good writers and commissioning from them. You don’t publish enough women? Find some more.

As Katherine Heyman said to the LRB in light of their VIDA count: “I’m sorry, but as someone with (I assume) a nodding acquaintance with Aristotle, you know that we only know someone’s intentions through their actions. If this really causes you and your colleagues actual distress, change it.”

Daniella Pafunda, an editor and one of the voluntary VIDA team, has noted: “I find women submit more consistently publishable work with regard to quality and appropriateness for the given venue. Men are more likely to submit unfinished work and work that doesn’t suit the publication for which I’m reading.” Men are taught that their point of view is always important, that someone will always be interested in their perspective. They will submit work that is barely relevant, or not fully formed, and still think someone might be interested. Women are not afforded this luxury. 

Sexism is a complicated, tricksy beast where cause and effect are knotted together and not easily distinguishable. As Kamila Shamsie said in her provocation to publishers to have a year of publishing only women in 2018: “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.” We are stuck in a cycle of women’s voices being devalued, which means they are less likely to submit work, less likely to have their voices sought out and less likely to be published. 

 

And breaking this cycle is a gradual, exhausting process but one that is desperately important and has to be done through the insistent representation and celebration of women’s voices. So, tweet a link to something you love by a woman, subscribe to Mslexia or go get a stamp or find an email address and submit what you’re working on. 

@acaseforbooks

The new issue of Mslexia is on newsstands today 

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