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.
I 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.
It 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.
Find out more about her on her website:www.sarasheridan.com
Follow Sara on Twitter: @sarasheridan
Like her on FB: https://www.facebook.com/sarasheridanwriter
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