On Friday an article in the i was headed ‘Publishing industry does not take women’s fiction seriously enough’. It featured former restauranteur turned novelist Prue Leith who claimed the industry underrates women’s writing. She claimed that if women write about love, it is categorised as commercial or women’s fiction, whereas if it’s by a man such as Shakespeare or Sebastian Faulkes, they get serious reviews.
The article also claimed that exam reading needed to include more female writers to encourage more diversity. Fine, but there is a problem with this, as until recently, most books were by men. So demanding equal space by women and various ethnic minorities is to downgrade a lot of great stuff from out past.
There is also a problem as to what is being compared. Do women actually write similar books to men, in which case bias can be claimed, or is there a genuine difference in what is being written? Of all the professions, it seems writing should be the most female friendly – for those with kids it is flexible enough to fit around childcare – and requires no expensive kit or training. There are plenty of books by women, but hand on heart, I am struggling to think of one that I would consider to be genuinely great. A lot are good, or very good, but where is a female War and Peace? Lord of the Rings? Clockwork Orange? Madame Bovary? Moby Dick?
I am struggling.
Is it that male literature appeals to women, but women write mostly for women?
Or is it me?
I turn to my famously overstocked bookshelves in search of inspiration. The novels are almost entirely by men. Rose Macaulay, Helen Garner, Jenny Diski… that’s about it. Five shelves, say 30 books each. Pathetic.
Most of my books are on British history, so I expect the male bias to be pretty strong here, especially as many of them are out of copyright. But I have a lot of art and architecture books, not war and empire building. The other day I praised Macmillian’s ‘Highways & Byways’ series, but a history writer demeaned them as being written by Edwardian vicars.
So what? They are loaded with the sort of obscure details that I live for. Stuff that requires trawling through far flung archives and often translating from Greek or Latin. But no women here.
The good news is that the research for my book on wife selling gives a better ratio – 12 out of 28 books and counting, but a few of the male authors have multiple books. The women writers are still mostly obscure, some seem to be one-offs. They are: Claire Brock, Jennifer Roberts, Sheila O’Connell, Stevie Davies, Phyllis Rose, Madeline Bunting, Henriett Keyser, Rebecca Probert, Lady Bell, Jehane Wake, and Jessica L. Malay. None of them best selling authors by a long way, but only one – Lady Bell – is out of copyright.
Elsewhere on my shelves I have books by Jenny Uglow (x2), Sue McKechnie, Catherine Arnold, Jean Bray, Bella Bathurst, Rose Macaulay, Anna Pavord, Penelope Hobhouse, Barbara Hammond (co-author with her husband).
I’m not surprised at some discrepancy, but the huge size of the imbalance is far more than I expected. Wandering round Waterstones, there seems to be a fair ratio of the sexes, but it seems to me that women are still writing a lot of middle class domestic stuff, akin to Leith’s latest, ‘The Flood of Love’ set in war-time London. It’s her sixth novel, so that’s 6 books with no appeal whatever to me.
So, here’s a challenge for all of you. Go to your bookshelves/kindle and count how much literature by women that you have.
How much of it do return to time and time again?
Then if you find your collection male heavy, ask yourself, is it the authors, the industry, or is it you?