All About Women

IMG_5247Wherever you are, there’s been no missing the topic of the week in the publishing world, Kamila Shamsie’s plea for a year of publishing women in 2018.  The piece has, inevitably, engendered heated debate, with passionate arguments on both sides of the divide.  It’s an interesting question, and it’s certainly far from clear whether the idea constitutes a necessary ‘fix’ or gender quotas at their worst…

Where it’s become interesting for me (and for many of my readers too, I suspect), is the way the discussion has spilled over into the area of literature in translation.  And Other Stories founder Stefan Tobler has become the first person to meet the challenge, pledging to have an all-female list for 2018.  I’d say that there’s a fair chance that other (small) publishers will soon follow suit, so the move towards a year of female-written books might not be quite as far-fetched as it first appeared.

Personally, I’m not convinced that it’s a great idea – a year is a long time, and while the idea is meant to overturn perceived discrimination, in itself it’s inherently discriminatory.  It’s also unrealistic to expect the big boys to play along; the majors will publish what they think will sell, and if that’s more men, then that’s what we’ll get.  In fact, not everyone agrees there is an imbalance, anyway (see the reply of Hannah Westland from Serpent’s Tail for another view on the topic).

However, while we might debate the matter in terms of publishing in general, fiction in translation definitely does have a gender imbalance, and it all starts with what gets published.  Even a casual glance at the latest Three Percent figures for 2015 (earlier in the week – more books have been added since…) show this.  A very quick, unscientific poll I did showed that around 45 of the 167 books recorded for the year were by women, a result which is close to the standard quoted figures.

There are a number of people on the case, trying to rectify this imbalance.  Katy Derbyshire, translator and curator of the love german books blog, has been going through statistics and dreaming up plans for a prize for female-written literature in translation.  Biblibio’s Meytal Radzinski  introduced a Women in Translation Month to the blogosphere in August last year, and there’s another one planned for later this year.  There are plenty of ground roots efforts to increase the gender balance in translated fiction, then – but is that enough?

Of course, there is a need for publishers to do their bit.  I encounter more translated fiction than most, and I can definitely see the gender imbalance.  Of the seventy works in translation I’ve read so far in 2015, twenty have been written by women while fifty have been by men.  I wouldn’t even say that I’ve been looking for books by men – if anything, the opposite would be the case…

So, what should we be doing?  As I mentioned above, while some publishers might rally to the cause, most won’t.  In addition, as many have rightly argued, preferencing women risks neglecting other so-called ‘minorities’ (e.g. LGBT, people of colour).  For me, a year of publishing women sends the wrong message – a month, on the other hand, why not?

I’ll continue to look for great literature in translation, and I’ll be very happy to receive books written by women.  However, if you think readers in general are going to give up on books by some of their favourite writers, just because they’re by men, you’re sadly mistaken.  The key to improving the gender balance is to get more people reading the great books already out there.  The more people become aware of writers like Elena Ferrante, Yoko Ogawa, Valeria Luiselli, O Chong-hui and Jenny Erpenbeck, the more they’ll want to read writing by these great authors.  By all means, continue to push for more translations from female writers – just don’t forget to read the excellent stuff that’s already available 😉

*****
On that note, please check out the current football/female writers event going on over at the Three Percent site, the Women’s World Cup of Literature – if you can’t find something that interests you there, then you’re simply a lost cause 😉

18 thoughts on “All About Women

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful addition to this discussion. I have been unable to address it without a level of frustration given my somewhat unique perspective on life on both sides of the gender divide. Unfairly clearing the playing field for a defined time is not a long term solution.

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    1. Joe – No, my initial feeling was that it was just a stirring attempt on Shamsie’s part, but it seems she actually was serious. Quotas are rarely a good thing, especially when that quota is 100% 😦

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  2. I find this a bit silky as the post from hannah point out there is not great gulf in the male female writers that are published actually it’s a good pr slin for.publishers willing to join in as for translation and gender balance talking about this distracts for me from the main problem that on average4% of fiction is translated a lot poor to our cousin rather than suddenly dividin the argument for more female why not more translated fiction a real challenge would been a year of just translated fiction rather than this idea but hey ho

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    1. Stu – The 3/4% question is one that few will address as they know that they’re in the wrong 😉 My take on this all is that there probably isn’t a huge gender imbalance in gender, but in our area there is. This is just an opportunity to refocus that attention a little…

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  3. Really interesting post and thoughtfully argued. Anything that encourages more people to read or publish any translated fiction – whoever wrote it and wherever in the world they are from – is a good thing, but reading books only by female writers for that length of time isn’t something I personally would ever want to do as I value the freedom of choosing what I read. It will be interesting to see what And Other Stories publish in 2018 though.

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    1. Clare – No, a year is a *long* time! I’ve done several month-long challenges (women, books from specific countries and languages), and that feels a good length of time. For some people, though, even that’s too long…

      Re: AOS, my feeling is that Stefan wanted to do this anyway as their back catalogue is a little male heavy. It might be a clever move, especially if he already has some good books lined up 😉

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  4. I doubt that And Other Stories’ decision is going to make a huge difference overall; but to my mind it’s analogous to Peirene’s grouping their books by theme – it’s just having a partiuclar focus for a period of time. That said, I do admire AOS for sticking their neck out – no doubt there is an element of calculation in their decision (as you said on Twitter, it’s good publicity), but to me it reflects the kind of conviction that lies behind their publishing.

    (Come to think of it, Peirene published only books by women in 2013, and I liked them all very much. AOS have a lot to live up to…)

    I agree with you that the best thing we can do as readers and bloggers is to talk about the good existing stuff – provide a map and (hopefully) others will begin to explore.

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    1. David – Ah, but there’s a big difference between three books by women and 10-12! As mentioned above, it may be just as much about redressing the balance of the past as it is about anything else.

      The idea of reading what’s there is borrowed, in a different form, from Open Letter’s Chad Post. He’s talked several times about the fact that each year sees more books translated into English than most of could ever get through – instead of complaining about the percentage, we should be reading the books…

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  5. I think one important point that has largely been overlooked in the discussion is that a year of publishing women and a year of reading only women are not the same thing. Most people don’t read only brand new books in a year and so no-one would be limited to reading only female authored works should they choose otherwise.
    What it does do is give the publishing houses the opportunity to look hard at their selection processes and submissions and use the time to discover firstly whether there truly is an imbalance, and secondly where it is coming from – is it a question of number of submissions, or of selection bias? Or are the novels being produced by women just not as good as those produced by men?
    I think that uncovering answers to these questions is a useful step. Of course there are worries about it distracting from other groups who perhaps at this stage need the attention more urgently, but men certainly don’t need to worry that one year of a few small publishers publishing only women is going to discriminate against them.
    And in terms of AOS’s output, is 10-12 books by women really so many that people find it hard to handle? For those of us who read voraciously, that’s a fraction of what we read in a year.

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    1. Audrey – I think that’s a false argument – I’m certainly not against AOS having a year of women writers, and I doubt anyone else is either. It’s the basic principle of the whole publishing industry discriminating against men for a year that’s up for discussion (and *that* is what Shamsie is suggesting). If this really were to go ahead (and, let’s face it, it won’t), it would be a catastrophe (and possibly illegal in some places).

      Suggesting that publishers have a look how they choose their authors (the likely effect of this whole discussion) is one thing – having an entire industry discriminate against men for a year is another…

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      1. Judging from comments left in less open minded corners of the internet, a lot of people are very strongly against AOS having a year of women writers. It’s been horrifying to me to read just how strongly.

        I personally believe in positive discrimination as a method for rectifying institutionalised discrimination across a variety of scenarios, and I think it is a widely misunderstood practice that puts people’s hackles up quickly. I’m not sure that I understand why you think it would be a catastrophe if it did happen, but that’s really an academic issue as we all agree that it isn’t going to.

        In the end the important thing is that it has provoked us all into having these conversations, and many people – not just publishers – are now looking at the diversity of the books they read. It’s interesting to me in part because it was when I started focusing on the lack of diversity in my reading that I stumbled into translated fiction, and now it has come full circle.

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  6. Audrey – When I said “I doubt anyone else is either”, there was a silent caveat of “except for the people who comment beneath the line on Guardian articles” 😉

    I’m afraid I disagree about positive discrimination (which for me is simply discrimination, especially when it’s 100%). A non-binding loose quota, with soft pressure from as many people as possible – I can support that. This isn’t an area where we’re likely to agree, though…

    I agree that the important thing is that people are having conversations, and I really hope that this is what Shamsie wanted to do. Unfortunately, I suspect she really did want this magical year to happen, and (as one of the people I’ve linked to above mentions) in publishing in general there may not even be a need for it. Certain areas (e.g. literary fiction, fiction in translation) do have an imbalance. Across the board? Where’s the proof…

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    1. Yes, I went below the line and regretted it immensely about 30 seconds later. Positive discrimination is a tricky one, I won’t deny that, and my take on it has been strongly informed by growing up in South Africa where it still is an important but controversial part of the national framework. That’s a whole other kettle of fish though, and as you say not something we’re going to change each other’s minds on here.

      And I can’t claim to be an expert on the publishing industry – I read that article you linked to above, and she may well be right. I certainly don’t think there’s a shortage of women writing romance novels,but we do see it in the literary fiction arena and that is the field that Shamsie specifically brings up. Coincidentally I’m actually about halfway through A God In Every Stone at the moment, and it’s delivering much more than I expected, so I’m rather inclined to think favourably of Shamsie right now 🙂

      Anyway, that’s my 2 cents, I’ll back out before I colonise your comments thread! Thank you for engaging on it!

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  7. I’ve been a bit torn about this, as it does feel like discrimination and tokenism. I think campaigns like #readwomen are more useful, as it increases the demand for female authors (one would hope). A very thoughtful, balanced contribution to a discussion that has become rather shrill at times.

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    1. Marina Sofia – With sensitive topics, there’s always a need to look at the bigger picture – antagonising everyone rarely helps the cause. Let’s hope more publishers have a look at what they release, even if they don’t go to extreme measures 😉

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