Women and Fiction

Dispirited? Moi? Well yes, a little. It seems that women’s works will always, always be neglected in favour of men’s. Despite excellent fiction written by women, despite the situation being exposed again and again and despite our best efforts. I am dispirited.

In the lists

200 Middlemarch coverTake the Telegraph’s list of 100 novels everyone should read, for example. Good start – first on the list is Middlemarch by George Eliot. There are, count them, another 18 novels written by women in the list. There is, of course, Charlotte and Emily Bronte. Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and on through Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Shelley to Harper Lee. I wouldn’t actually disagree with any of the 100 novels, they should all be read. And more too. People should read. But 19% is not a good representation of women’s writing in a list with that title.

Bit of a girly cover?

Bit of a girly cover?

Same again in the list of 100 best novels written in English from Robert McCrum, published in the Guardian in August 2015. 22% books were by women. Emma by Jane Austen was #7 on the list and the first by a woman. The list was criticised for its lack of diversity (including women, people of colour, the Irish). Readers added another 15, of which 6 were by women.

If the proportion of women rises above 17% in Hollywood crowds people believe that women are in the majority, according to Caroline Criados-Perez author of Do it like a Woman. In lists of fiction the threshold appears to be about about 20-25%.

Perhaps the problem is the lists. The idea of the 100 best in fiction is subjective, and reflects the compilers’ tastes, prejudices, knowledge, experiences. Guess who compiles the lists!

The Vida Count

Research is undertaken annually by VIDA Women in Literary Arts and can now show the picture of women writers in a number of categories in leading literary journals over 5 years.

The 2014 VIDA count tells a vital story about the lack of parity in the literary arts. In addition to surfacing the barriers women face in the literary space, the research shows that the obstacles are compounded for women of color. Women Authors and the Media.

VIDA looks at the journals and counts, by gender, its reviewers, the authors reviewed and the bylines of its journalists. Here are the charts for two UK based journals: Granta, which does comparatively well and the TLS, which does not. The men are in red, the women in blue.

200 Granta Overall1

200 LRB Overall6

And here is a particularly depressing chart if you are a woman author trying to get attention for your books from New York Review of Books. At least it improved at the last count.

200 NYRB Authors-Reviewed6

More than numbers

And it’s more than numbers. Meg Wolitzer wrote about the women’s fiction question in the New York Times in an article called The Second Shelf: on rules of literary fiction for men and women.

She uses the term ‘women’s fiction’ to refer to literature written by women, but acknowledges that it is used to describe

a certain type of fast-reading novel, which sets its sights almost exclusively on women readers and might well find a big, ready-made audience.

All fiction by women gets lumped into this category, especially by some men, as ‘one soft, undifferentiated mass that has little to do with them,’ she argues. She looks at reviewing, Amazon categories, book jackets, book length, the gender of the main characters which all indicate to readers what one might call the gender of the book. And that there are exceptions (prize winning books by women for example) does not indicate an approaching literary idyll. As poet and literary critic Katha Pollitt says

For every one woman, there’s room for three men.

The eminent historian Mary Beard has shown how women in public spaces have always been silenced by men, from Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey onwards. Her LRB lecture was called The Public Voice of Women.

Here are more exposes of how women writers are treated.

16 things sexist male writers say by Christine Stoddard in Huffington Post 29.7.15

Gendered travel writing How not to be Elizabeth Gilbert by Jessa Crispin in Boston Review 20.7.15 ‘Men go on adventures, women on journeys of self-discovery’

Women know your place by Tracy Kuhn on Women Writers, Women’s Books 3.7.15

Women in Translation Month Biblibio 21.5.15 who followed up the introductory post with 31 daily posts in August.

What to do?

189 Do it coverCaroline Criados-Perez (Do it like a Woman) ascribes male domination to the male default. This is the attitude that women are the exceptions, men the norm. Only exceptional novels make the lists, are reviewed, are published. We must expose it, show it up for what it is and for how it deprives everyone.

Go on counting, and go on publishing the figures. Go VIDA!

Follow the example of #Readwomen, not necessarily to read women only but to be conscious of the proportion of women writers and take some corrective action if necessary. I posted about #Readwomen in June 2014. It was my 100th post on Bookword.

159 BWPFF 2015 logoTake account of the long and short lists from the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction. It is likely that we will need a women’s prize for the foreseeable future. I wrote a post about the need for such a prize in 2013 called Who or what are literary prizes for?

Promote specific initiatives, such as Women in Translation Month. This twitter focus -#WITmonth – brought many great translated works of fiction to readers’ attention. My contribution was The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke

Bookword includes a series that highlights older women in fiction, nearly all written by women. I believe that we need to see images, read books, watch plays and films about those who are less visible in our world than white, middle-aged, males or beautiful young people.

Talk about the obstacles, and praise the breakthroughs and advances. Publishers, editors, list compilers, bookstore buyers, judges panels – they all need to be aware of the bias towards male writers, and be prepared to justify it when they continue it. And they need to know about all the great novels by women and how we want to read them.

And it matters because …?

Because the job of fiction is to take people to worlds that are other than their own, worlds elsewhere, show different perspectives, understandings, experiences. Reducing access to the 51%’s other worlds makes no sense.

175 Womenppower symbolThis is my 200th blog post. It matters to me and it should matter to everyone who enjoys great fiction (which should be everyone, but that’s for another post!). So I shall stop focusing on the dispiritedness and go forth again, into the struggle.

Is there some action you can propose to promote women’s fiction?

Please subscribe by entering your email address in the box. You will receive emails about future posts.


Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

10 Responses to Women and Fiction

  1. Catriona Troth

    Hi Caroline. I agree wholeheartedly with this. But it is good to remember that – as Allie Jane Bruce pointed out in the new blog, Reading While White – everything you say about representation goes doubly for BME writers, and probably quadrupally for women BME writers.

    • Caroline

      You are right. It’s even harder for BME writers, and even even harder for female BME writers. Did I read that Bernardino Everisto is setting up a course, or programme to support BME writers.
      Let’s continue reading and supporting the diversity of writers, adding our own oomph where we can to the neglected and overlooked ones.
      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Eileen

    I like Emma’s wormy hair. She could have looked more powerful if the colours had been different. Pink=chick-lit. The covers, of course, add to the putting down of women’s literature and putting off of male readers.
    Thanks for your passionate review.
    Be good to slightly change your contribution on political action in Chapter 14 of our Ageing book in the light of what you are saying here.

    • Caroline

      Hi Eileen, I like the idea of a purple Emma!
      Not sure why this comes across more strongly than the bit I did about the blog for our book. I actually recycled the paragraph I sent you? Must be something in the context of the post altogether. But we can discuss this.
      C xx

  3. I share your exasperation, Caroline. The Observer did have the decency to publish a riposte to Robert McCrum’s list in the form of a piece by Rachel Cooke (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/aug/16/100-best-novels-women-in-literature-rachel-cooke) but the space it was given was pitiful compared with McCrum’s many weeks of mostly banging the drum for male fiction. The Telegraph’s literary editor is a woman but I see their list is put together by ‘Telegraph reporters’.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this Susan. Yes, the reply to the Guardian was significant. But again, not enough diversity. Now how did McCrum become the expert?
      Exasperation is a good word.

  4. Absolutely agree and I am also tired of the same old female authors being trotted out.

    What this tells me is that there is little incentive to discover and champion the new female authors out there. New talent is held to impossible standards, and let’s face it, if we are waiting for lesser known authors to achieve the fame levels of Austen et al, nuttin’ is gonna change and we’ll see the same old, same old trotted out.

    I shall continue to shout about Bailey White, Karen Russell and Janis Owens until I turn blue in the face.

    • Caroline

      Great to read supporting comments and the actions you are taking. Hope it doesnt come to turning blue, but …
      Thanks for the comments please drop by again.

  5. Sarah Bear

    Loved this blog, with a realistic respectful tone rather than purely harsh criticism. Raise awareness though highlighting the true statistics and opinions rather than simply going on an angry rant. Beautifully articulated viewpoint with injustice of male dominance quantified without any male author hating. Brava Caro. Xxx

    • Caroline

      Thanks for these comments Sarah. I am not dissing men’s writing, just the view that only men, and a few outstanding women, really count.
      I will probably say it again on my 300th post!
      Caro xx

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *