Literary Snobbery

February 6, 2015 | By | 22 Replies More

Sara Sheridan, creator of the Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries, talks about how literary snobbery is divisive within the writing community, not least between men and women.

Sara Sheridan colour02I live in a City of Literature, but I’d rather live in a City of Words. Literature, to me, isn’t necessarily a good thing – it’s exclusive, for a start. It doesn’t sell to ordinary people in mass-market locations. It tells readers what they ought to want, rather than simply grabbing them by the imagination (which to me, has always been a writer’s job).

The City of Literature in Edinburgh, where I live accepts all forms of writing and is genuinely inclusive of all branches of the writing community. What I object to is the term ‘literature’- the notion of it. It is an issue about value and part of that is a gender issue.

The sad fact is that women writers receive substantially lower advances than men, and they also receive less coverage by way of reviews and fewer prizes and nominations for prizes. Some of the world’s most prestigious literary publications are unfairly skewed when you look at what they produce in gender terms.

In 2013 for example The London Review of Books posted reviews for books written by only 72 female authors as opposed to 245 male ones. The New Yorker came in at 253 female to 555 male and the Times Literary Supplement (with far more male reviewers than female) also fared poorly in the equality stakes with male 903 and female 313. This given that over 80% of fiction is bought and read by women.

In reply to the publication of these statistics, Peter Stothard editor of the TLS said he was ‘only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books’ and continued ‘while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the TLS.’

Feeling outraged yet? You’re not alone.

As Lesley McDowell a writer and critic points out ‘There’s a tendency to elevate novels about war above novels about the domestic sphere, and women tend still to write more about the latter. It doesn’t make their novels any less serious or important, but they are perceived to be less so.’ McDowell long ago decided to prioritise reviewing women’s fiction in response. She is in the minority.

For the most part the industry continues to revere literary writers, while relying for its financial success on non-literary ones. In the last fifteen years or so, this perception has been shaken but the prejudice still continues, as evidenced by the review data above. In the 1990s, the cancellation of the Net Book Agreement in the UK (which forbad books to be sold at discount prices) and the introduction of Neilson Book Scan (which gives actual sales figures on a daily basis) sent aftershocks throughout the literary community.

bellecoverIt turned out that for years the industry hadn’t known how few books literary authors were selling (or at least not until months after titles had launched). With new retailers entering the book trade (supermarkets among them) and actual sales figures available immediately, advances suddenly plummeted. In the light of the new sales information the only way to justify spending big bucks was if a book actually achieved big sales.

Emerging writers were given one shot at the traditional publishing success – and some took off. The Harry Potter phenomenon (written by a women who, interestingly, used a non-gender specific name) would not have been possible without these developments (at least not to the same degree). On the flipside, if a writer didn’t cut the financial mustard immediately they were dumped.

This was a big change and it had a profound effect. In the old days, an emerging midlist writer might be supported through several books as they learnt their trade. Writers from Jane Austen to Ian Rankin learnt as they wrote, published as they went. These days they would be dropped after one or two novels failed to hit the bestseller list.

I, for one, am not comfortable with the idea of our literary heritage being solely based on high sales figures or that promising and publishable writers are not being underwritten within the industry long enough to establish their work. However I am glad that commercial writers are becoming more respected for their ability to connect with a large audience, female writers among them.

Effectively, now we have a two-tier system – a staid ‘literary’ community, which doles out reviews and prizes, and a commercial community that is far more concerned with real readers in numbers. The nature of the former is predominately male, the latter, I would say is mixed, if not more female.

Women have been fighting this battle for a long time. When Kate Mosse set up the Orange Prize in 1994 (now The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction) it was revolutionary. Since then there have been an array of prizes and movements worldwide to try to address the gender imbalance and an army of female statisticians who produce figures they hope will promote change.

The recently founded Stella prize in Australia, set up in part by Jenny Niven, Creative Scotland’s new Portfolio Manager for Literature, Publishing and Languages is a case in point. These prizes are controversial. It is argued that women’s work ought to be taken on merit alone rather than being given a hand-up by excluding men. But then, given the ingrained bias, it stands to reason that a proportion of the men currently in better positions than their female counterparts, are where they are because of their gender. The only other explanation is that men are simply better writers than women – and I, for one, am not buying that story.

Similarly, outwith the writing sphere, on average, men earn more in the publishing industry than women (in 2014 a storming 16% more). Female editors face a glass ceiling alongside their female writers. And still, there is a huge amount of judgement involved in what kind of books you write/commission and an almost an apologetic tone about writers who are making money

Lastly, the advent of digital culture has had a huge effect. It has broadened the curatorship of storytelling. There are a limited amount of review slots in traditional media outlets (magazines and newspapers) compared to the unlimited nature of blogs, most of which are run by ordinary readers, passionate about their favourite genres.

Women are well represented. Their blogs become beacons for writers and readers who love the same kind of books and, hey presto, the stories that hardly ever get reviews because of the stuffy attitude of literary journals, have found an outlet that works for them. It’s interesting that as publishing has become more corporate, digital media has opened an outlet for individual voices –in terms of both criticism and writing. We need that diversity.

Most writers come into the industry imagining an open creative door, where their work will be judged solely on merit. People know it’s tough but they expect it to be fair. Instead they find a fissured landscape torn between literary and commercial, male and female, traditional and digital media. In one corner there are mostly white, mostly male critics and editors and in the other, a sea of readers. The race is on to see who can reach those readers first.

Sara Sheridan is a Scottish writer who works in a variety of genres, though predominately in historical fiction. She is the creator of the Mirabelle Bevan mysteries.

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, On Writing

Comments (22)

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  1. Ann Hirst says:

    Hi Sara, I’ve just finished my first novel and am about to embark on the whole agent/publishing procedure and this, this exact subject has been on my mind for days and is fuelling my fear of putting myself out there. I thought it was just me. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the title of your article in my Twitter feed. You’ve summed up perfectly – and very eloquently – exactly what’s been on my mind. Thank you for some excellent food for thought (and, whether intentional or not, a little bit of reassurance). X

  2. Even the reviews are not always complimentary to women. When Sue Grafton released one of her books–and she’s has a series lasting years–she had one line referring to the main character putting on makeup. The reviewer, a woman herself, went on and on about this single line and how it was going to wreck the series.


  3. This is a brilliant article Sara. I recently completed a Masters by Research in literature and creative writing. I want to write, but have been put off the traditional route by the lack of opportunity and the inherent literary snobbery. Because of this I am going to publish my first books digitally.
    The issues you raise need to be discussed not only in literary circles but also in academic ones.

    I look forward to reading more of your work.

  4. Perhaps I’m a secret snob, but I must confess to taking a slightly different view of things. For I worry about the current state of books and reading in which everything seems to be measured by quantity, scale, the number of likes and links, tweets and retweets, etc.etc. So much so that literature, which Pound described as “news that stays news,” never has a chance in an endless sea of the ever new and newer, and the quantification of everything….

    • Well that’s a whole different thing – and a really interesting area. Thanks for bringing it up. I’m an historical novelist so I’m especially interested. We see the (enormous) amount of releases and, looking backwards it seems to be a more restful time. But what Pound is referring to, is the books that stick. And to find out which books stick takes not only a few months but probably decades. So I always find it amusing when a book is called ‘a classic’ (I mean a ‘new’ classic) because classics need to stand that test of time. We’ll know what our ‘literary’ heritage is well after 2050 and the chances are some books from that twitter/like/quantity fest will make it and some that have the official seal of ‘literary’ approval will too.

  5. Maggie Craig says:

    Sara, I couldn’t agree more with you. I’ve been fighting against literary snobbery all my writing life. I don’t like the division between “literary” and “genre” either although sometimes I think we should reclaim the term “literature” as simply meaning that which is written. If I’m asked what type of books I like, my answer is good ones, whatever the perceived genre or subject.

    I get so frustrated by being dismissed by some people who haven’t even read my books because they can be described as romantic. I prefer “romance noir” myself!

    Fortunately, I meet lots of readers when I give talks at libraries and festivals, who give me wonderful feedback. In one of my novels, my 18th century soldier hero lies awake at night thinking about the poor horses. I don’t know why I wrote that line, it just came.

    One reader subsequently told me that she remembered her grandfather, who had fought in the First World War, speaking about the poor horses. It’s at these moments you know you’ve tapped into some collective memory/knowledge about what it is to be human. Writing’s about communicating. A book isn’t a book until the reader reads it and if that connection is made, it’s a good book.

    • Thank you for that. Like you, I think it’s readers that are most important and if they are enjoying what they are reading, then that’s the most anyone can ask for. Down with snooty critics! Sx

  6. Heather Hill says:

    Excellent article, well put. I read an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, where she said, ‘I think that the whole conversation about who’s included in the serious literary world is an entirely fear-based discussion — that the people who exclude certain kinds of women writers from that world are afraid that by including them it will diminish their own seriousness, and the women themselves are afraid of being excluded, or of not being taken seriously, so that they sometimes either hide some of their impulses or try to write in a certain kind of way to gain approval. I just don’t want to play that way. It’s not fun and it’s not exciting, and it doesn’t lead to daring work.’
    She’s right of course. My first novel (a comedy) was rejected across the board by the big publishers, even after I acquired an agent. Then someone suggested I ‘write for the market’. Last year, I spent six whole months writing a new book whilst trying to suppress my natural instincts to write what has been labelled, ‘crude humour’ by some editors. I hated it; it just wasn’t me. In the meantime, I self published my original novel and it is now a bestseller with lots of great reviews applauding it’s humour and chosen subject, which is somewhat controversial. I love literary works and I love comedy. I love non-fiction and I even love a good war time drama and a historic novel. All of the aforementioned genres have many, many titles that can be labelled, ‘great, noteworthy writing’.
    I wish I hadn’t wasted that six months trying to suppress my natural, writer instinct. There needs to be more new stuff out there. Oops. I said ‘stuff’. Bang goes my Times Literary Supplement entry.

  7. B. L. Wagner says:

    While I completely agree that women face huge discrimination in the literary world (See Canada’s answer: CWILA, I disagree that “literature tells readers what they ought to want, rather than simply grabbing them by the imagination…”

    For me, good writing is good writing. And it’s all literature, by the very definition of the word no matter if it’s good, bad, mediocre, or what genre. It’s good writing that matters. Good writing will capture and hold a reader and bring them back to a specific writer’s work again and again over the long term.

    If my writing is good, if it is the best it can be, I believe it will be published. I worked on my first book for 20 years to get it right. And I took it across the country on my own dime to share it. If I have to work another 20 to get the next one right, so be it. I want to be remembered for writing well, not for the numbers I sell.

    And if you deem this literary snobbery, so be it.

    • Hello there, it is the term ‘literature’ that I object to, not good writing. But good writing is a matter of opinion – one reader’s masterpiece will cause another to give up after 20 pages. So my point, really, is that people should write what they like and read what they like and not be judged by the literary establishment for it. I hope your book does brilliantly! S

      • Toni Jenkins says:

        Hi Sara.
        I fully agree with your article and your point above. Good writing is so often associated only with literary work, but these are mutually exclusive terms and personal opinion should have just as much value as critical opinion. What I love to read and what my friends love to read may often differ. But therein lies the beauty of the writing industry – variety is essential and should be celebrated. Long may commercial fiction flourish, for the sake of the writers and the readers! Toni

  8. nicole quinn says:

    I appreciate the schisms you’ve highlighted and documented well. I too have used the monogram route, stealth writer assumed to be male, my credibility elevated as a result. Isn’t it all storytelling, writ down now, instead of shared around the hearth, the campfires? Maybe, for a while, all of our books should be blind submissions, so that presuppositions don’t cloud the read?

    Your essay is beautifully written, even literary. So much so that I have purchased Brighton Belle.

  9. Lani says:

    I had no idea that things were so skewed and male dominated. Out of curiosity, how did this first come to your attention?

    • I have known about it for ages. Until recently I used to sit on the committee for the Society of Authors in Scotland (where I live) – which is essentially an authors’ union. Quite a bit came to my attention as the result of that. Once you’re interested the information is not difficult to find. Shocking! Sra

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