Joanna Walsh – author and journalist – is the founder of #ReadWomen. Open Pen sits down with her to discuss her take on the publishing industry, and its enduring gender imbalance.

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Tell us about #ReadWomen and why you started it.

Anyone who believes gender is no longer a problem in publishing should read Catherine Nichol’s recent piece in Jezabel. Readwomen came about almost by accident – I made some New Year’s cards in the form of bookmarks with pictures of women writers, and invited people (via Twitter) to submit names for the backs of the cards. I was sent well over a thousand. Drawing attention to women’s writing was clearly something people wanted to do.

The decision to turn it into a campaign was inspired by, amongst other things, the VIDA Count, that logs the number of books by women, and women reviewers at literary papers, and the decision by several reviewers to redress their personal balance by reading exclusively women authors for periods of time. Plus Barbara Bos of booksbywomen.org, who was so strong in her encouragement for me to continue that she went ahead and reserved the Twitter account for me.

Many of the leading authors in modern literature are female. Lydia Davis’ stories are some of the most highly acclaimed, and writers like Hilary Mantel are covering a broad spectrum of writing both in artistic and popular culture. Is gender becoming less important, or is it heightening as an issue as it gains more attention?

As gender becomes less of a problem, it is allowed to become more of an ‘issue’. The recent increased prominence of women writers has enabled them to make an issue of gendered problems, as for instance Eleanor Catton did after winning the Booker Prize.

It’s interesting that gender in stories, as well as gender of writers, is becoming an issue too. A recent study showed that women writing about men are more likely to win prizes than those who write about women. Your choice of two examples of successful women writers is interesting, as much of Mantel’s writing deals with subjects that Virginia Woolf stated, in A Room of One’s Own, catch the critics’ attention: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war,” whereas Davis’ stories frequently concern the undervalued “feelings of women in a drawing-room”, or its modern equivalent.

With awards such as the Man Booker Prize having an equal gender balance on its longlist, is the gender gap in literature narrowing, or is this a problematic view of the current state of publishing as a whole?

It’s difficult to evaluate across genres, and countries, where things can be very different. Hannah Westland of Serpent’s Tail recently claimed in The Bookseller that women’s battle in literary fiction publishing in the UK has already been won. Most prize lists have had a long climb from 1996 when Kate Mosse founded the Women’s Prize (the former Orange Prize, now the Bailey’s) after finding that women writers regularly made up as little as 10% of prize shortlists. Many women authors writing now were also writing then. For them, the position may feel hopeful, but I doubt it yet feels very secure. I’m currently co-founding a prize for women’s writing in translation (consistently only 25-30% of contemporary fiction translated into English is by women). VIDA shows that women are still severely underrepresented in some papers as reviewers and the reviewed. The landscape is very uneven.

With the numbers within the publishing industry of both male and female authors reaching a more equal balance, are the concerns not so much about how many women are published, but rather, how they are perceived, with regards to negative stereotyping within the industry? ‘Chick Lit’, ‘Girly covers’, etc.

Many women writers, e.g. Lionel Shriver, have complained that their covers trivialise their work, and there is an issue that – even when appropriate to their content – many male readers may be reluctant to pick up a book that looks like it belongs to a female-oriented genre.

The recent Faber 50th anniversary cover of Plath’s The Bell Jar is an interesting case – a hand-mirror on a magenta background reflecting lipsticked lips. Some people found it too ‘girly’, others thought it reflected the book’s concern with the damage wrought on women and on Plath’s protagonist by the beauty myth. I didn’t dislike the cover, but I did worry that it might put off some readers.

Is this the result of, or reliance on market forces? Does a wider cultural change need to take place? How can something so ingrained be challenged?

I think the massive ‘chicklit’ phenomenon of the early 2000s has had an effect, with a number of classics by women being repackaged to look soft and friendly.

Women do not write in a cultural vacuum, and many are discouraged before they get anywhere near being published, due to gender roles and expectations they see around them at home, at school, at work, due to networks and traditions that favour men. There’s no doubt that more equal roles in life mean more equal roles in literature.

Publishers have a role in changing both factors. But ‘feminist’ publishing is not about creating crude ‘strong female characters’, but starts by letting women’s voices be heard, and by letting women writers explore writing to its fullest without feeling they have to write a certain way in order to be published. I consider Jean Rhys’s books feminist works. Though she does little more than delineate the problems of women’s lives, she gives them human voices, and accords their experience value.

Joanna Walsh

Joanna Walsh, founder of #ReadWomen

Should there be a demand for institutions in publishing to be equal in gender? Should this demand be maintained? Is it a necessary way of creating equality, or is it patronising? Should good literature simply be viewed as good literature?

Kamila Shamsie recently called for ‘a year of publishing women’. She called this a ‘provocation’ but two publishers responded with a pledge to do just this – And Other Stories and Tilted Axis. They are relatively small presses, and are able to take this decision. I think there are many approaches, and no publisher should give up their commitments to male writers already on their list. Larger and older publishers can look at neglected backlist titles, and must go out of their way to encourage new writers. This latter is one of the most important factors. I sometimes find it depressing to see situations (in some publications and events) where a smaller number of well-known women authors are present, giving the illusion of equality, alongside a large number of younger male writers who are being given page or stage room: the freedom to experiment in public, which will make them better writers.

Literature is never ‘simply good literature’, and I challenge anyone who believes this to spend a year reading any leading publisher’s complete output from 1850, or 1760, or 1930 and to come up smiling from every title. Happily, there’s enough ‘good literature’ to go round forever, and no one publisher can publish all of it. Any good publisher will actively seek out a variety of voices, and that involves positively exploring areas of writing they may never have published before. Of course this can gain them new markets too.

How possible is the unification of male and female writers within the industry? Will authors be able to be seen as superfluous to their work? Is this the ultimate aim? If not, what is?

No form of equality or diversity in literature means the erasure of the writer – that’s a bizarre thought. If readers are looking for writing that speaks to something in them, it is usually mirrored by the writer’s freedom to explore something in him, or herself. This doesn’t mean we should be creating the writer-as-celebrity – do we really know more about the emotional and intellectual depths of Kim Kardashian than Elena Ferrante (who writes under a pseudonym)? All writers should be able to work in an environment where they feel comfortable pushing what they can do as far as it can go without having to worry about whether their work will be less acceptable because of their gender. That’s all that every writer, male or female, wants to do.

How is the future for female writers looking?

Hopeful, I hope… I’m particularly encouraged by the number of publishers who, without publishing women exclusively, have made a commitment by bringing a variety of women’s writing to an audience of both women and men. This includes, amongst others, Tramp in Ireland, And Other Stories and Tilted Axis in the UK, Dorothy a Publishing Project in the US…

In regard to inequality, it’s my observation that the class gap imbalance in particular far outweighs any other. The class gulf for published writers is embarrassing.

Reading women is only one issue, but I think #readwomen’s call to read more consciously, with an eye to breaking old habits, inevitably prompts readers to look at other issues around the books they choose.

Women share a range of issues that cross class barriers – for instance, the general assumption of their role as default carers, or the time-and-money-consuming obligation to look good – that mean, despite the diversity of their individual experiences, there are ways in which women can also be considered a class. And there are particular points at which being female exacerbates lack of opportunity: austerity is a feminist issue and who, worried about basic income, has time to write, or the energy to pursue a job in the competitive world of publishing?

As an ex-state-school student who started with neither the connections nor the financial security to take an internship, I am concerned that several factors will put off less well-off students from studying arts subjects that could lead them to become either writers or publishers, including the well-intentioned discounting of fees for STEM degrees, and the large amounts of unpaid or low-paid work that are standard for anyone looking for an initial job in the arts.

I’m a member of ArtsEmergency, which provides an alternative ‘old boy network’, mentoring state school students interested in arts careers, and I’ve just taken on a temporary trainee fiction editor at 3:AM Magazine via Spread The Word’s Flight1000 diversity scheme. These issues are beginning to be addressed via initiatives like this, but I’m afraid it will need a larger and better-financed (governmental) response at every stage of learning and, indeed, life to make sure people on low incomes, and from backgrounds where writing or publishing seems a remote fantasy, feel comfortable demanding a place in the arts.

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Discover more about Joanna and her forthcoming publications by visiting her website. You can also follow her on Twitter @badaude

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