So, today, Guardian journalist Kamila Shamsie came up with a solution to the gender-bias in publishing: ignoring the men for an entire year. The article is here: Let’s have a year of publishing only women – a provocation, and should probably be read so people know what I’m on about.
However, in a nutshell, it does what it says on the tin: in an effort to rebalance the gender scales, publishing houses should refuse to publish books that are written by men for an entire year (2018).
First of all, let me say I’m an ardent feminist (and also female). I’m also a discerning reader of books. The idea that the publishing industry could exclude men from their roster of books for 2018 is as ridiculous as saying we should exclude women from it. Whether or not a book is worthy of being published should always be judged on the quality of writing and the story being told, not who has written it.
Whilst it’s completely true there is a gender bias in publishing – proved by such statistics mentioned in this article, but also by simply looking on any bookshop shelf – the way to solve it isn’t to ignore quality books written by men for twelve months. Apart from gross sexual discrimination, it would also damage the publishing industry and the literary world, for the simple reason that publishing is a business. Businesses need to make money and publishing houses aren’t the exception to that. They have a bottom line and a profit margin to uphold and maintain, meaning that they have a certain number of saleable books to put out each year in order to stay in business. The immediate scenario that springs to my mind is the choice of two books: one which is average, which happens to be written by a woman, and one which is fantastic, which happens to be written by a man. In 2018, this fantastic male-penned novel will go undiscovered and unpublished, creating loss of earnings for the publishing house and bookshops. Assuming readers buy on a book’s merit, the average female-penned novel will not do as well as the fantastic counterpart, which brings about a secondary problem.
I love books. I love books written by men and written by women. My favourite author is Robin Hobb who, despite the gender-neutral name, is 100% female, a fact that surprises many who read her. Yes, this is an example of the seemingly inherent gender bias in publishing: the fact that Hobb has chosen a gender-neutral pen name in an effort not to repel would-be buyers (the Fantasy genre is notorious for ignoring female writers), and the fact that when her gender is discovered, it is met with surprise.
I specify the above because I do not want anyone to think that I believe women are worse writers than men. They are absolutely not, and it is a crying shame that not more are recognised. No doubt, if only women writers were published in 2018, there would be some true marvels discovered. Having said that, do we really want to put the spotlight on women for 2018, which would only anger people – quite rightly so! – and accept the pressure of being a ‘female writer who was only published because of her gender’? What happens if, as mentioned in my first scenario, that the chosen female writers – chosen because the publishing house needs to make a profit and so cannot choose no one at all – are all lacklustre? It happens. Slush piles the size of Everest live in literary agencies and publishing houses alike. I know, I’ve seen them. If these would-be rejects are instead accepted because the profit margin is in danger of collapsing, do we really want ‘average’ books to be on the shelf in 2018? Do we really want already angered readers looking at the lack-lustre output and saying ‘This? Is this all women can do?’.
Far better to publish on merit alone, as it always should be done. There are other problems to address on this topic, and other ways to solve them, no doubt, but unfairly excluding men from being published makes about as much sense as saying women shouldn’t have the vote because they’re biologically prone to hysteria.
So… radical thought, but no thanks.