Women, Literature and Invisibility

The Orange Prize announced their longlist this week, to coincide with International Women’s Day. I saw on Twitter a few grumblings about these ‘women only’ events, sadly a lot of them from young women, who seem to think it’s better to talk about ‘people’, and not single women out for special treatment.

This would be fine, if men hadn’t been having all the special treatment for centuries. If sexism wasn’t still rife in the workplace, in pay packets, in casual pub conversation, on television, in magazines and newspapers. If sexism wasn’t still so institutionalised that it’s sometimes hard to spot it, especially now that no one talks about it out loud.

Last year Vida (Women in the Literary Arts) released their first Count, a tally of book reviews, totting up the gender of reviewer and author. The results showed a gender bias across most publications, weighted significantly towards men. The Guardian ran an article with responses from commissioning editors, where the TLS editor, Peter Stothard, said that he would be very surprised if the numbers of published books were split 50/50 between the genders (and if that’s true, shouldn’t we be concerned about that as well?). He seemed to think this excused the fact that around three quarters of the authors and reviewers of books in the TLS were male, but he revealed his real problem in his next sentence: “we know

[women] are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS”.

In other words, “you ladies read fluffy books that aren’t important”.

The inference to be made is that the books we write aren’t important either. Or is it simply that anything that concerns women isn’t important?

I believe in positive discrimination because most people, myself included, don’t much like change. If it worked before, however imperfectly, you’re likely to stick with it. Without the catalyst of offering women and only women for a prize or election, say, the chances are that you will always see the men rise to the top. It’s far easier to stick with what you know – literary prizes are no exception.

Which is why it’s very important that women writers have to continue driving change in the publishing industry.

Sisters in Crime is an organisation founded by Sara Paretsky to specifically combat the gender bias in the mystery genre. When she began she found that “[crime] books by men were reviewed 7 times as often as books by women”. Not only that but books by male authors stayed in print far longer – women’s earning capacity was shrivelled by having not as many column inches and not enough time on the shelves. It’s the equivalent of getting half the pay for the same work. Fighting the imbalance is not a done deal either. As Sara says, everytime they take their eye off the ball, the discrimination creeps back in.

In a moment of serendipity, after I’d written most of this post my copy of Mslexia popped through the door (do you subscribe? If not, why not?), with an excellent article on this very subject. It also included some research into the effects of verbalising gender stereotyping – tell a woman she can’t reverse park and she’ll mess it up, in other words. Women have been told for centuries that not only can they not drive cars well, they aren’t deserving of education, equal pay and opportunities, or property ownership, to name a few small things. We are supposed to be there to nurture the dreams of others, not create our own. It’s no wonder that we are under-represented in the arts.

It is incredible how guilty and selfish a woman can feel for clutching at an hour of time to write, rather than do the laundry. And yes, women are far less likely to offer themselves up as professional writers or reviewers, never feeling good or experienced enough, since we seem to lack the sense of entitlement that some men seem to carry around with them. Yes, I have trouble with all of the above, but I’m working on it, because I know that I am more than a pile of paired socks.

Vida repeated their count this year. Nothing much has changed. We ought to keep shouting about it until it does.

2 thoughts on “Women, Literature and Invisibility

  1. Yes, Persephone Books seem to easily find excellent books by women that have inexplicably fallen out of print – have you seen their book of short stories by Elizabeth Berridge, for example? There’s no way it should have been left to a tiny, specialist publishing house to put that back into circulation.

    My [more feminist than the average] boyfriend didn’t have a single female author on his bookshelf when we met – but I had a mixture of men and women. I’d guess this is fairly typical.

    So long after the Brontes and George Elliot, isn’t it worrying that JK Rowling felt the need to use those gender-hiding initials to help Harry Potter reach small boys?

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