Wherever 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 😉