I’m not sure what Johanna Thomas-Corr is saying in her recent article published in the Guardian. Is she complaining about women writers’ success in sales and prizes? Is she noting, even celebrating women’s achievements? Is it a warning? Is this patriarchal pushback?
The headline, provided by a sub no doubt, is misleading and hooks in readers with a martial, competitive angle:
How women conquered the world of fiction
The word conquered is misleading. You can read the article here
What is this?
Johanna Thomas-Corr begins the article as if she is making a complaint. Most of the buzz in fiction, she says, in the last twelve months ‘has been around young women’. She mentions the successes of Yaa Gyasi, Rachel Cusk, Gwendoline Riley, and Odessa Moshfegh among many others, including some being revisited such as Anita Brookner, Zora Neale Hurston and so on.
The energy, as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, is with women.
And one reason for this domination is that women have taken over the publishing of fiction. She quotes some statistics.
I read this far and began to think to myself, oh diddums. In my family, as in others, this means that you are complaining about something that you may have responsibility for, or you ignored it when someone else complained about it. But I chided myself. If it was wrong when women were so excluded, it can hardly be acceptable when men are.
But then, I said to myself, hold on a minute there. Just for a while it would be good if a few men understood what it feels like to be excluded or on the margins. Women experienced it forever in literature. And still do, by the way, in terms of getting reviewed and being employed as reviewers. See all that VIDA data.And what is more, women are still kept in a minority in most spheres: sport, government, parliament, film (apply the Bechtel test, which asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), music, orchestras, tv, business, seniority in most professions, and on and on. For a few moments, just take the experience of fiction and then, oh complaining men, imagine what it must be like to meet this kind of dominance in every walk of life, everywhere, all the time.
So what’s the problem?
Having expressed myself on that matter I return to fiction. Here is what I was not clear about: what is the problem caused by this dominance? Perhaps it is not a bad thing that women have ‘conquered’ fiction. Some publishing and writerly people Ross Raisin spoke to do not see it in terms of difficulty.
[Rob Doyle] sympathises with readers who are turning away from fiction by men, partly because “the whole 20th century was a pretty close examination of male sexual desire.”
And if they are pandering to what they believe to be women’s tastes in fiction “they are in danger of rendering themselves even less worth reading than they are already”. Others felt that they were witnessing a realignment.
Consider the effects of the commercialisation of publishing as the smaller companies have amalgamated or been swallowed into the big five. As a reader it is clear that the bigger houses are not taking any risks with fiction, reaping the rewards of the big names of today as they did those of the (largely male) famous names of previous generations. It is with Indie presses and self-publishing that innovation is promoted.
One publisher, Sharmaine Lovegrove, founded Dialogue Books to spotlight writers from marginalised communities, excluded from mainstream publishing.
She argues that publishing has become a monoculture, dominated by “white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heteronormative women” who feel that they are themselves victims. “Because it’s all about dismantling the patriarchy, men don’t get a look-in.”
That’s me, a bit. Although I do not dominate the publishing world, and would not regard myself as heteronormative, and I am certainly not defining myself as a victim. I am a reader and I feel quite able to pick books by all kinds of writers, and promote novels by writers from marginalised communities, or writing about marginalised communities. On this blog I promote books about older women in fiction and by women of colour and translated fiction by women.
I agree that there is a danger of a hegemony emerging in newly published fiction. It is based on “comp titles” by which publishers consider a submission by comparing it to other similar books.
The reliance on that as a mode of thinking leads to publishers reproducing what already exists … It doesn’t allow publishers to innovate. [Kishani Widyaratna, editorial director of 4th Estate]
This approach is part of the favourite culture, encouraged by the if you liked that book you will like this one or people who bought that book also bought this one sales pitches, made possible by digital marketing. The pursuit of profit in literature is not compatible with innovation and new perspectives. And anyway, promoting sales based on previous commercial success is unlikely to favour hegemony of what Sharmaine Lovegrove calls ‘white feminism’ when you consider the number of titles containing the patronising use of the noun GIRL or novels which feature women being brutally murdered.
Karolina Sutton (agent at Curtis Brown) says that readers will continue to read novels by men, but the literary space has changed. Their status is no longer dominant, she says. The challenge for publishers is to continue to surprise readers because literature and culture do not stand still.
Are you worried, dear reader? I’m not clear whether Johanna Thomas-Corr is.
[Note: this post is an amended version of the original.]