On reading women writers

A possible World Cup winner?
A possible World Cup winner?

Kamila Shamsie has written what she calls a provocative article, about gender bias in publishing. I have dealt with this issue before – here, here and here. It has also, of course, been discussed in many other places. I do not know what prompted Shamsie to write her article now but it may well have been the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announcement. Or maybe it was The Women’s Football World Cup. This has led Three Percent to have their Women’s World Cup of Literature (they did the same for the Men’s World Cup last year). (It looks like they have struggled with some of their choices. The Thai entry, for example, is a children’s book, presumably because they were unable to find a Thai adult literary novel written by a woman, in translation.) Or maybe because the Guardian, where Shamsie’s article was published, has also been one of the various publications to show the dearth of women at this year’s rock festivals. Or because of the Cannes controversy. Or the lack of women in TV comedy.

Eudora Welty - the only US woman of letters?
Eudora Welty – the only US woman of letters?

Yes, sexism is alive and well. Shamsie mockingly points out that a conference on The Crisis of American Fiction mentioned only one woman – Eudora Welty, a very fine writer but perhaps best known for her stories and novellas, rather than novels, and dead some fourteen years. Shamsie has done her homework and makes some very valid points and agrees The issue can’t of course be broken down into a story of fair-minded women versus bigoted men. Indeed. In the blog posts listed above, I mentioned many reasons, beyond straightforward sexism, why bloggers (male and female), reviewers (male and female), publishers (male and female) and readers (male and female) seem to be reading/publishing/reviewing more books by men.

A Hungarian novel in English by a woman - quite a rarity
A Hungarian novel in English by a woman – quite a rarity

Last week I was in Budapest (for a general holiday, not for specifically literary purposes). While there I visited three book shops where they had a (albeit small) stock of books of Hungarian literature translated into English (and French and German, as well.) Nearly all of them were by men, the only exceptions being Magda Szabó and Ágnes Hankiss, the former not well-known in the English-speaking world and the latter virtually unknown, except, perhaps, for her role as a Member of the European Parliament. My website has seven Hungarian male writers and Magda Szabó. I own around a hundred Hungarian novels, two by Szabó, one by Cecile Tormay, one by Ágnes Hankiss and one by Júlia Székely (not available in English), only one of which is in print. The rest are by men. This does not reflect my taste or my innate sexism but, quite simply, availability. A quick glance at modern fiction in Hungarian in the book shops showed, again, that the majority were by men. Authors like Gyula Krúdy, Sándor Márai and Zsigmond Móricz (all dead) figured in abundance.

Sándor Márai - still a best-seller in Hungary
Sándor Márai – still a best-seller in Hungary

I do not know how typical Hungary is but I am reasonably sure that there are many other countries where the majority of the novels translated are by men. Shamsie would argue, quite correctly, that this shows sexism by the the people responsible – publishers/agents/national literary organisations, both in the source country and in the target country, primarily the UK and US for English translations. However, what it does not show is sexism by the readers/reviewers of such works who can only read/review books available to them in a language they can read.

Best-seller not written bya man
Best-seller not written by a man

Shamsie goes on to propose a radical solution. She suggests that, in 2018, none of the new titles published in that year should be written by men. Naturally, in the comments, she gets viciously criticised, with some of the commenters making sensible points (I will leave you to read them for yourselves). I can only agree that her idea is ridiculous for so many reasons and, obviously, is not going to happen, not least because it will not solve the problem in the long term, as, in 2019, the book trade would be swamped by books with male writers. Let us also not forget what books have sold really well in recent years – E L James, J K Rowling, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Donna Tartt and not a penis between them. Amazon’s top-selling UK books have eight women, one man and one committee in the top nine. The Guardian’s top-selling books of all time has two Dan Browns in the top twelve, with the rest by women. Yes, I know that this is not what Shamsie means but she cannot entirely ignore it.

Still Catholic
Still Catholic

I have banged on about this topic too much. I hope that I have shown that Shamsie is right but she is too simplistic in her analysis of the reasons for the problem. Yes, the publishing industry is undoubtedly sexist. Janet Maslin of the New York Times was recently damned for her all-white summer reading list. Though it did have some women writers, the majority were male. So the publishing industry is racist and sexist. And the Pope is Catholic. I shall still look out for interesting women writers but will read according to my taste and interests which will almost certainly mean that I shall read more male than female writers. I shall follow with interest initiatives like #readwomen2014. And I shall welcome any promotion of worthwhile women writers.

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