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Gender imbalance in publishing ‘no surprise to anyone who has ever possessed a set of ovaries’

Adam and Eve where Eve is 'too ambitious'

Questions of gender and equality in publishing have reared their heads again after a Jezebel article revealed the results of an experiment by writer Catherine Nichols in which she submitted the same manuscript to various agents under her own name and under a male pseudonym. In news that will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever possessed a set of ovaries, ”˜George’ was not only more successful in eliciting responses but those responses were framed in different terms to those few received by Catherine. His writing was ”˜clever’; hers was ”˜too ambitious’. In at least one instance it was the self-same agent responding differently, and women did it too.

As Nichols acknowledges, unconscious bias may in this case be married to fully conscious awareness that male authors have an easier time of it in the ”˜literary fiction’ world. It’s easier to market books when these get review coverage, for example, and a recent Vida study found that coverage is still dominated by male critics writing about male authors. Prizes bring exposure, so it’s unfortunate that prizes are won more often by men and, as Nicola Griffiths recently pointed out, almost never by books with female protagonists.

The point of unconscious bias of course is not only that it is unconscious but also that it is pervasive. As if to demonstrate this point, commentators have rallied round to tell us that gender is irrelevant, what matters is literary quality, and that Griffiths’s article belittles the achievements of women writing about men. If we accept the former argument ”“ and don’t ask any questions about how and by whom concepts like ”˜literary quality’ are defined ”“ then we would have to accept that women couldn’t write at all before about 1850 and apparently still don’t write as well as men, because then they weren’t published at all and today they’re still published less.

So what of the idea that books by women about men might gain more traction critically? Once V. S. Naipaul said, “inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing.” It’s easy to jump up and down and shout ”˜sexist’ ”“ and Naipaul is ”“ but this is in some ways a relevant point. High status genres including but not limited to literary fiction (think also biography and history) tend towards a focus on broad swathes of society, on power and its effects, on figures of influence and the sort of thought that flourishes in academic and related institutions. Women may struggle to write about other women in these genres precisely because society has never allowed women access to the same range of experiences as men.

With a very few exceptions, history confined women to the private sphere of home, family and other women; lives less documented, more circumscribed and deemed to be of interest only to ourselves. Yes, things have improved to a degree since Charlotte Brontë was around but we can still look up from our own, lower-status genres through the glass ceiling to where the real status resides. I suspect it’s all compounded by squeamishness over our predisposition to ”˜sentiment’ and the bloody nature of our bodies’ more fundamental functions. Even those women who break out into the hallowed realms of ‘literary quality’ do not escape their own biology; I have no idea of the state of V. S. Naipaul’s family or his prostate, but the press keeps me well informed on Hilary Mantel’s endometrium and the fact she has no children. (I understand that Mantel has actively decided to raise awareness of endometriosis but remain unconvinced she would ever have had much choice about discussing children once she hit the big time).

We attended the recent Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) and it got us thinking on the gender front. Children’s publishing is an area in which women abound ”“ publishing, writing, reviewing and ”˜gatekeeping’ ”“ but it is, naturally, of lower status and generally attracts lower salaries (though not, of course, lower sales). Prizes tend to reflect the relatively fair gender balance among authors and there’s no gender issue when it comes to review coverage because, generally speaking, nobody gets any anywhere it matters anyway. In fact, women have a voice to such a degree that we’ve now seen a backlash and, as I wrote here around a year ago, there are men suggesting things need to be redressed. It’s not uncommon for articles of this ilk to claim that no one BUT NO ONE is concerned by the fact that boys don’t read as much as girls. This only goes to show the author has never attended an education or reading event anywhere in the whole world ever because he does not know that so much attention goes on deficits in boys’ performance that for years the establishment failed even to notice that girls can have dyslexia or autism. Or, you know, concussion from banging their heads on glass ceilings all the time.

The comments on Catherine Nicols’s Jezebel article suggest that many women writers view YA as a more open field than literary fiction, and a recent Newsnight piece suggested that YA is actually leading the way in representing LGBT writers and characters. Unfortunately it should also be said that going on the evidence of YALC it’s another ghetto ”“ perhaps 95% of attendees at the YALC event were female. A panel discussion on feminism was fascinating in a slightly awful way. There were questions from the floor about what the point is ”˜now we have equality’ and how we deal with the fact that some men think feminism is bad (it’s good I wasn’t on the panel; the answer wouldn’t have been printable). There was even an, ”˜I am feminist but I wouldn’t call myself a feminist’ comment from a panellist who was concerned about negative connotations of the word and apparently unaware of the concept of ‘monstering’ or its value to beneficiaries of the status quo. If it had been up to YALC to campaign for votes for women, a good number would have agreed the Suffragettes were unfeminine and gone home to cuddle up with some John Green instead.

There were some great contributions too, of course, and I’m sure very many sharp attendees, but the fact remains that the attendance pattern was suggestive of a very particular audience profile for YA. Is it a genre (or market category) published almost exclusively for young women? If it is, how do we understand our responsibilities to that demographic? And how do adult readers affect it?

To my mind genres of literature published ”˜for young people’ but read by adults are less adventurous and less honest than those published for children or adults. I’ve written before that I think YA was considerably more radical in the past.  Before it was even recognised as a genre, Alan Garner was taking on the class system, Aidan Chambers was describing a young man’s first orgasm and Judy Blume’s Michael and Katherine were doing it every which way and nobody even died.

I’m not the only person to have written about a certain avoidance of political and economic reality in today’s YA and about problematic tropes such as what a Jezebel commentator calls ”˜Pandering YA Dystopian Novels About White Girls Who Are The Only One Who Can Save The World [As Long As The Stronger Boy Is There To “Inject Them With White Boy Strength”] And The Other White Boy Loves Her Too, Even Though She Is Plain And Clumsy’.

Whatever YA is or is not, I think the marker has to be that we can say, hand on heart, that young people’s lives are the better for it. In many cases I think that is the case. Kevin Brooks, Melvin Burgess, Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff and Anthony McGowan are just a few of the writers that come to mind who trust in young people’s capacity for thought and discrimination ”“ and know that youth often makes us more radical, not less. But I’ve also read more and more books of late that have left me with a sinking feeling that it was better back in the day when there was no YA really and me and my contempories developed obsessions instead with Sunset Song and Middlemarch or Stephen King or Jilly Cooper. Some of those books had big ideas and/or big status and some were pap, but at least there wasn’t a lot of extra pap specially published for us, set in a special sanitised world invented for us by adults, in which no one has sex (except the ones who get pregnant or die) and especially not a bank account. And all that grown-up stuff was a huge part of the pleasure.

No one in publishing, of course, would ever argue that we should infantilise and disempower young people, but actually, when we publish books that fall into lazy tropes, reinforce restrictive gender constructs and encourage readers to engage their brains less not more, that’s just what we’re doing.

Mairi Kidd is the MD of Barrington Stoke and our accessibility editor. On the blog she writes on books, literacy, dyslexia and the publishing industry in general.

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