OAt first glance, the revelation that women writers dominated Britain’s literary bestseller lists in 2017 might seem cause for celebration, a long-awaited correction that seems particularly welcome in a year that has exposed systemic biases in many forms. in the creative industries. According to the bookseller’s sales analysis, only one man, Haruki Murakami, entered the top 10 which saw a new generation of female writers, including Sarah Perry, Naomi Alderman and Zadie Smith, supplant such venerable figures in the literary landscape as as Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.
It’s tempting to hail this as evidence of a reinvigorated appetite among readers for women’s stories and perspectives – it’s estimated that more than two-thirds of fiction in the UK is bought by women, so it seems remarkable that it took us so long to vote with our wallets. Margaret Atwood won the top spot by a long shot, thanks in part to the smart-screen adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, but the former had gained momentum of its own since the rise of a patriarchal US administration intent on limiting the autonomy of women. The success of Naomi Alderman’s The Power, which won the 2017 Baileys Prize and topped Barack Obama’s Book of the Year list, also reflects a thirst for stories that speak to our current concerns and suggests that female authors are more successful in addressing these concerns. concerns, perhaps because they understand better what it means to be at the forefront of any rise in anti-liberal sentiment.
But does this really represent a radical change in the recognition of female literary talent? If the figures are encouraging, especially in a context of declining sales of literary fiction, the list of booksellers has been drawn up, by its own admission, according to a narrow definition of “literary”, limiting its choices mainly to laureate or rewarded authors. shortlisted for major awards.
Given the well-documented bias of major prizes in favor of male authors – in 2015 author Kamila Shamsie found that less than 40% of titles submitted by publishers for the Booker Prize in the previous five years had been by women – this results in a very small pool of eligible names, mostly those who have already been recognized by the Women in Fiction award.
Which brings us back to another perennial debate: the question of what exactly “literary” means in this context, and who decides – a question itself riddled with gender bias. For the purposes of publishers and booksellers, more often than not this seems like a label applied to any novel that does not easily fit into an obvious genre, with the addition of a loosely defined value judgment on the style of prose and depth of ideas. When it comes to journalism and critical coverage, “literary” becomes synonymous with “serious,” that is, original novels that reflect on the state of the nation and the human condition, that challenge and confuse readers.
If you were to take at face value the coverage gap in major newspapers and journals so faithfully recorded and analyzed each year by the non-profit organization Vida, you might conclude that men are simply producing more fiction. “serious” than women. But as Francine Prose pointed out 20 years ago in her essay Scent of a Woman’s Ink, much of this stems from an inherent bias in how men’s and women’s work is viewed. When a male author writes about a family, it is considered social commentary; when a woman does it, it’s a domestic tale.
It seems like a simple enough problem to solve – all it takes is for editors, judges, publishers and booksellers to make more conscious choices about how they portray and promote women – and last year’s sales figures fortunately suggest that progress has been made. But the industry could still do with a more robust redesign.
As recently as 2015, author Catherine Nichols wrote about the experience of having her first novel universally rejected, only to encounter a very different response when she submitted it under a male pseudonym. In the same year, Shamsie advocated for publishers to make 2018 the year of women publishers, and the past year has seen wider recognition that the literary world seriously needs to improve its commitment to diversity in terms of race.
I would like the “literary fiction” category to be opened up by publishers and juries; a more inclusive definition of literary merit would almost certainly mean better visibility for the many talented women who write detective stories, thrillers, science fiction or romantic comedies. Let’s celebrate last year’s top 10, while ensuring that the prominence of brilliant female writers becomes so commonplace that it’s commonplace.