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Tokenism be damned. Take your patronising quotas, your pats on the head, your diversity pamphlets and equality drives and shove them somewhere dark. I am a woman, and I am a meritocrat and I need none of it.

So I thought, with all the clarity and passion of youth. A special convulsion of rage was reserved for the women’s fiction price formerly known as Orange. How could we pollute the shades of Austen and Elliot, by implying that women writers needed special pleading, bless ‘em? How I crowed at the new sponsor being Baileys’ Irish Cream.  How fitting. Real women don’t need token “lovely effort, dear” prizes and they don’t drink Baileys. Mine’s a Laphroaig and the Man Booker, thanks.

Next week the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction celebrates its twentieth anniversary [2 Nov], apparently undiminished by my ire, and that of its many, voluble detractors. It has been decried as “sexist” by a number of critics and novelists including Tim Lott and AS Byatt. Undaunted, it has championed the work of female authors, given the winners a load of cash and the shortlistees a boost to circulation.

And then, suddenly, my rage dimmed to a simmer, then complete contrition. What changed? My entanglement in the fringes of the publishing industry and the realisation that here is a world of gender-blurring half-truths and weirdness.

There is a paradox at the heart of the industry that no-one seems to be able to explain: fiction publishing is dominated – at the lower levels at least – by women. It produces a product which is overwhelmingly bought by women, who buy almost twice as many fiction books as men. And yet the top echelons of the industry – the whirligig of prizes and book reviews and back-slapping is entirely dominated by male themes.

Of the last fifteen Man Booker prize winners, two were written by women, about women. There were a further 4 winners written by women, but they were from the perspective of men, or from a multi-viewpoint with male and female protagonists. The Pulitzer prize over the same period has been won by precisely no women who were writing from an exclusively female perspective. These figures were collated by the writer Nicola Griffiths, whose superb novel Hild (Little Brown, £9.99) about the 7th century St Hilda of Whitby, may well have been garlanded with prizes had it been about St Henry/Howard/Hugh instead.

Even the Baileys Womens Fiction Prize fails the Griffiths test. How many of the past ten years’ winners - from which the best of the best will be chosen by a panel of judges on Monday – were written from a solely female perspective? One: Eimear McBride’s novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. A book which was, incidentally, rejected by numerous publishers, presumably on the grounds that it is not called A Man is Fully-Formed Literary Thing.

There is no obvious, single reason for this weird skewing towards the male. One publisher I spoke to said: “I’ve spoken to hundreds of authors over thirty years and not once had the conversation pushing them to write from a male perspective.”

It seems like an alchemical and toxic relation between reader, writer, bookshop and publishers. There is a strongly held view among publishers that men do not buy books written by women. There are no industry-wide statistics to back up this perception. Neither Neilsen Book Research, the boffins who collect the bestseller data, nor The Bookseller, the industry trade magazine, collect data who is buying what categorised by genitalia possession. The view is backed only by anecdote and the marketing departments’ private research.

The implication of this supposed gender imbalance is more obvious in genre and commercial fiction than in literary fare. “Marketing departments say you can sell to a male audience or a female audience, but never to both,” says one publisher. For my own second historical fiction novel, I chose to write primarily from a male perspective. In part this was because I fell in love with the story. But in my genre, if you choose a female protagonist who has even the vaguest sub-plot involving love, she will be placed on the front cover, decorative and bosomy, looking winsomely into the middle-distance. It seemed simpler to avoid the argument and go male. Men are allowed to love in fiction without looking winsome or presenting their tackle to the reader.

As the writer Zoe Venditozzi says: “There’s a tendancy to think, this writer has a vagina so let’s put something frivolous on the cover so people are not hoodwinked into thinking it might be serious.”

In genre, as well as children’s books, it is common to see women using their initials to avoid giving away their horrifying femaleness to tender male readers. JK Rowling is the most famous example, PD James another.

In fantasy and sci-fi, the gender ructions are frequent and turbulent. The Hugo Awards, which reward the best work in the genre, had similar numbers of men and women nominated over the past two years. Cause for celebration and champagne all round for the ground-breaking women? No. Instead, the awards have been subsumed in politics, back-stabbing, block-voting and accusations of liberal bias.

All this confusion over the gender of both reader and writer comes at a time when book-selling is undergoing its own crisis of the soul. Waterstones, the only bookseller of note left, is extremely risk averse, buying a handful of copies of books it likes, rather than taking bets on large numbers. The supermarkets are now major players and entirely judge a book by its cover. If the last bestseller was blue and bosomy, they will take a punt on the next blue and bosomy one which comes along. Meanwhile, online, algorithms push readers deep into silos based on previous purchases. Algorithms tend to make bestsellers sell more, while the unknowns sink, traceless.

The timidity of booksellers, the rise of the algorithm and the panicking of the publishers make it a tough environment in which to be an author. Enter the prize. The Baileys has a reputation among booksellers for translating into sales more reliably than the Man Booker. All authors, of whatever sex, need all the help they can get. Let there be a men’s prize for fiction, sponsored by Special Brew. A prize for red-heads, another for one-armed Welsh daughters of clergymen. Bring on the awards.

But female writers have a challenge specific to them: they need the confidence and support from readers, booksellers, prize-judges and publishers to write ball-breaking, genre-busting, prize-winning works which do not start with a male protagonists. Awards solely for women writers can only help them write books which begin with the pronoun She.

 


Comments

01/13/2016 9:36am

Just read this after following HWA discussions on gender and agree with every word - what a wonderful piece. Thank you. I am writing a book about a woman from a woman's perspective currently (not a baby, partner or romance in sight) and bah sucks to any one who says I can't or I shouldn't. Writers should be brave and write what compels them not what this so called "market" dictates.

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Antonia Senior
01/13/2016 10:20am

Thanks Denise! I agree writers should be brave. But it's hard not to just want to be read - which leaves you compromising with a screwed up system.

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11/03/2016 7:06am

Feminist is the subject that deals with this--claiming that it is "objective" whoever we know that it comes from a subjective root. Theological scholars believe--from the book of Genesis--that man and woman complement each other. Education was banned from women and schools and universities prohibited the inclusion of women as intellectuals, saying that due to their nature, they are better off at home. Express what you need to, ladies. The world are all arms hearing from you.

This piece is such an eye-opener and very relevant in our society today. It's a sad reality that even in writing, there are double standards. As for you Denise, more power and go write what you want and let the "market" marvel at your creativity and intelligence.

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05/20/2016 8:14am

Feminism in literature seems to be repressed and female writers hide in the shadows in simply writing journals. Feminist is the subject that deals with this--claiming that it is "objective" whoever we know that it comes from a subjective root. In language, they form messages that are expressed in a native tongue particular to that culture alone. Literature has drawn different characters and writers are more often just as characters as their characters themselves. However notorious or infamous other writers are, there are often those who writing legacies has gone unnoticed.

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