The novelist made what she called her “provocation” in Saturday’s Guardian, revealing that just under 40% of books submitted to the Booker prize over the past five years were by women, and pointing to everything from the author Nicola Griffith’s research, which found that far more prize-winning novels have male than female protagonists, to the Vida statistics showing that male authors and reviewers command more space than female.
“At this point, I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there is a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics,” wrote Shamsie. “Enough. Across the board, enough ... I would argue that is time for everyone, male and female, to sign up to a concerted campaign to redress the inequality ... Why not have a year of publishing women: 2018, the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK, seems appropriate.”
And Other Stories, the literary press that uses a network of readers to source its titles, has become the first publisher to accept the challenge. “I think we can do it,” said publisher Stefan Tobler. “And if we don’t do it, what is going to change?”
A small publisher, And Other Stories releases 10 to 12 new titles a year. “We’ve realised for a while that we’ve published more men than women,” said Tobler. “This year we’ve done seven books by men and four by women ... We have a wide range of people helping us with our choices, and our editors are women ... and yet somehow we still publish more books by men than women.”
Tobler’s colleague Sophie Lewis, a senior editor at And Other Stories, said she expected the team would be “rescheduling male writers’ books for other years [and] digging harder and further than usual, in order to find the really good women’s writing that we want to publish” in 2018.
But the main thing she wants to do over the course of the year is “to examine the selection and promotion process, the production of their books from commissioning to reader’s bedside”.
“By taking on the challenge we will expose our systems and the paths of recommendation and investigation that brings books to us, and we will end up becoming a kind of small-scale model for a much bigger inquiry about why women’s writing is consistently sidelined or secondary, the poor cousin rather than the equal of men’s writing,” said Lewis.
“Personally, I’d rather not think about it. Why should we have to? Surely great writing will out? It seems not – or it seems so consistently that women’s writing makes it less often that we have to doubt the fairness of the systems in place. So it will be worth carrying out a year of publishing only women in order to document the difficulties involved.”
Tobler said he “hoped other publishers would join in”, but while literary agent Clare Alexander praised Shamsie for “purposefully being an agent provocateur”, she said it was unlikely that the UK’s larger publishers would commit to publishing only women.
“But it’s a consciousness-raising thing,” she said. “I do think this country defaults male, given half a chance, so we have to have some conscious corrective. It can’t just be left to the Baileys once a year. We need a climate of positive thinking.”
Shamsie said that she had been “struck” after publication of her essay “by the number of people who’ve assured me that they know I was just trying to start a conversation and didn’t intend anyone to take a Year of Publishing Women seriously”.
“I didn’t know that myself (surely radicalism has to be the only way to take on such entrenched power structures) but was beginning to be convinced by everyone else’s conviction when And Other Stories (headed by a man it should be said) came along and said, ‘OK, we’re in,’” said the acclaimed novelist.
While Shamsie is “sure there are a lot of people within publishing who have been rolling their eyes at the whole article”, she said she has “only heard about that secondhand or by reading between the lines of conversation or noticing certain obvious silences”, with those getting in touch with her “largely positive”.
“By positive, I don’t only mean those who agree that a year of publishing women is a good idea but also those who say you’re right to point out there’s a problem but here are other ways to address it,” she said. “So there’ve been a host of interesting suggestions: a women in literature festival; a commitment to ‘genderless’ covers for novels; a strategy to specifically address the gender imbalance of books submitted for literary prizes. All of which sound good to me – we need as many suggestions as possible to counter the depth and breadth of the problem.”
Griffith, who has led a call for more research into books submitted for literary prizes, and their subject matter, agreed, saying that the “more ideas about how to push back against the problem, the better”.
“This is a huge problem for all of us, however we identify, gender-wise. Half the people in the world aren’t being listened to, and this has an impact on all the people. We all need to pay attention to this, and find a long-term solution,” she said.
After analysing the winners of six major literary prizes over the past 15 years – and concluding that “women seem to have literary cooties” – Griffith is now trying to coordinate the “incredible” response to her initial blog post, which has seen “dozens” of people coming forward and volunteering to parse other literary awards.
Shamsie’s solution “isn’t the front I choose to commit to ... but I can see how it would be useful for others,” Griffith said. “My only caveat is that this could be used to solidify battle lines, sharpen the us-versus-them attitude, which I’m not sure is the most useful approach.”
“Provocation,” added the novelist, “is one way to bring attention to the problem. Another is brightly coloured pie charts. I’m sure there are a score of others, waiting to be born.”
This article was written by Alison Flood, for theguardian.com on Thursday 11th June 2015 08.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010