vant to the way we live now.’ Women writers have now assumed their place in the literary canon and two years ago scooped every major prize. There is even a female Poet Laureate. Despite such victories, not all the sisters are throwing their Phrygian caps in the air. ‘I did a recent event with Jenny Colgan and Margaret Drabble,’ recalls Marika Cobbold, whose novels include Frozen Music and Guppies for Tea. ‘While we all felt that women are not discriminated against in terms of sales, we still are when it comes to newspaper review coverage. The broadsheets will review with great reverence a male writer’s book that would be regarded as chick lit if it were by a woman.’
She is not alone in her belief. Novelist Amanda Craig believes too often women are not regarded as portraying universal truths of equal validity to men. Though women are receiving more review coverage, those writing contemporary fiction dealing with modern British society, struggle for recognition. ‘Male critics rarely review us and few women, especially those over 40, can’t resist being snide or patronising,’ she claims. ‘I can always rely on a woman to mention my having been a journalist – what would they rather I did? Nothing? – as if this somehow made me less of a stylist as a novelist.’
Cobbold agrees, and contrasts the coverage Craig received for her last novel Hearts and Minds with that given to Sebastian Faulks’ A Week In December. Both books deal with contemporary issues and are set in London, but whereas Faulks merited full-page reviews and several broadsheet interviews, Craig, whose novel was acclaimed and hailed as ‘important,’ was relegated to second or third lead on the page. Other coverage was limited, much of it generated by the writer herself. ‘I don’t think it is a big male conspiracy to ignore women and not take them seriously,’ Cobbold says. ‘It’s just that their eyes glaze over if they even sniff anything they perceive as a “woman’s issue.”’
Literary women writers are also undermined in the media by an apparent obsession with appearance and personal issues. An interview with Joanna Trollope or Zadie Smith is as likely to focus on what she is wearing
as the ideas she is expressing. A couple of years ago I interviewed Trollope and asked her about a particularly vicious interview (by a woman) in one of the broadsheets. The interviewer had referred to her ‘peeling off a tiny Chanel jacket’ and snapping shut a ‘tiny’ handbag. Throughout, it talked about her weight. These comments implied a lack of gravitas in Trollope’s writing. ‘Would she have written about Ian McEwan or Martin Amis like that?’ asked an incensed Trollope.
The sneering dismissal of much contemporary women’s fiction under soubriquets such as ‘chick lit,’ ‘aga saga’ and ‘clogs and shawl’ fail women writers in two ways. First, the tags (invariably coined by men – Terence Blacker, who came up with ‘aga saga’ has openly expressed his regret),
do not acknowledge that sales from these genres subsidise publishers’ lists. Second, they are blanket terms for women writers with the same cover treatments rather than writing quality. Publishers and booksellers who dictate covers designed to take a book to the widest possible audience, carry much responsibility for this, as Brayfield notes: ‘If a book couldn’t be marketed as chick lit, publishers didn’t want to know – and a whole generation of women writers was mis-marketed to oblivion on that ticket. I think the industry still has difficulty with female literary authors. There is an underlying assumption that a woman writer is a genre writer.’
Even those happy with the genre label believe they are still taken less seriously than their male counterparts. A male crime writer like Ian Rankin may be asked to front serious arts shows or appear on political debates or have his latest book promoted with interviews in the main section of a Sunday broadsheet; the same cannot be said for literary women working in more definably ‘female’ genres, such as romance. ‘Many times I’ve heard men say, “I don’t read books by women.” The reverse? Never!’ says Chris Manby, who has 13 bestsellers to her name. She adds, with a note of sarcasm, ‘I think there was a certain amount of jealousy [about chick lit] fuelled by the fact that it looked so easy. Thinking up a crime plot or inventing a new universe probably seems more daunting.’
It is into this post-Richard & Judy world that Mslexia enters its
THE BEST OF TIMES…
The past decade has seen unprecedented change in the book industry. I asked writers, agents and publishers to nominate the top five: >> Explosion of choice for the book buyer: books are now available everywhere, from the internet to the grocer’s. It has democratised reading, making books accessible to those intimidated by traditional outlets. >> The internet: it has proved to be an invaluable tool to writers, whether they are researching characters and places or talking directly to their readers through blogs and social networking sites. >> The rise of the Smart Independent Press: the growth of SIPs like Profile, Canongate and Grove/Atlantic has given an outlet to edgy writers whose work is not deemed commercial enough by the big presses. >> Women at the top: The glass ceiling lies in shards on the boardroom floor. Of the big four conglomerates, Random House, Penguin/Pearson, HarperCollins and Hachette, only Hachette is not headed by a woman. Democratisation of criticism: led by book groups and Richard & Judy the hegemony of the predominantly male critical establishment has been broken. Now to sell a book, you need to get it into the hands of cultural icons rather than cultural commentators.
…THE WORST OF TIMES
Not everything that has happened in the past ten years has benefited writers or readers. I asked writers, publishers and agents to nominate the five worst developments: >> The cult of the celebrity: celebrity books have heralded the end of serious nonfiction. Though they generate profits, they also soak them up in high advances, marketing spends and attention. >> Richard & Judy: the tv duo’s success in promoting books polarised book sales into megaselling titles endorsed on the R&J sofa and the rest, which floundered. >> Slow-burn careers: large publishers paying huge advances to celebrities and R&J shoe-ins saved money by cutting authors from their lists whose first couple of books failed to sparkle, leaving them with no time to build a career. >> Price wars: as supermarkets and Amazon fought for customers with cut price books, those outside special promotions were left looking expensive, and their sales reflected that perception. >> DIY PR: authors have increasingly less time to write thanks to expectations that they will work hard to raise their profile in the media and build a following through events and the internet. DK
10 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09