This International Women’s Day, we’re taking time to consider the gender imbalance that prevails within the literary landscape, even today. As a team of women, the Willoughby Book Club is passionate about reading and supporting the work of women, trans and non-binary writers. The publishing industry may be better than it ever has been in terms of gender balance, but there still exists a shameful legacy of underfunding and undermining creative women.
George Eliot | Mary Ann Evans
Andre Norton | Alice Mary Norton
A.M. Barnard | Louisa May Alcott
Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell | Emily, Charlotte and Anne Brontë
J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith | Joanne Rowling
Some of the best-known names in literature; producers of classics and bestsellers; invisible women. Highlight the list above to reveal the true names of these literary giants!
Writing in 1850 in a preface to Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, Charlotte explained the rationale behind the Brontë sisters’ male pseudonyms:
“We did not like to declare ourselves women, because… we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.”
Over ten years later, Louisa May Alcott must have had the same ‘vague impression’. She enjoyed writing her ‘lurid’, gothic thrillers, stating that the style suited her ‘natural ambition’, but published them under the deliberately ambiguous name A.M. Barnard to avoid the judgement of her father and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the 1930s, Alice Mary Norton, the first woman named a SFWA Grand Master, legally changed her name to Andre Alice Norton after her publishers advised her that, with a largely male readership, she’d be more marketable.
Even more recently, in the mid-1990s and again with the 2013 publication of The Cuckoo’s Calling, Joanne Rowling has published under two names: one deliberately ambiguous and the other male.
So, is it still the case today that women authors are ‘liable to be looked on with prejudice’? Reviewing the literary world over the last decade, one would certainly think so.
In 2015, Catherine Nicholls submitted her novel to 50 agents under her own name and received just two manuscript requests. Yet, when she sent the same book with the same cover letter but using a male name, she had a whopping 17 manuscript requests.
The same year, Kamila Shamsie conducted a review of the books submitted by publishers for the Booker Prize over the last five years and found that only 40% had been written by women and the percentage on the long and shortlist never rose to even 50%.
Over the last 20 years, just six women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the same is true of the Pulitzer Prize. The Booker Prize has been won by 31 men but just 16 women since it was established in 1969. However, the lack of recognition female authors face in the literary arena isn’t a case of lack of output or reader interest.
As Hillary Kelly argues in her 2019 Vulture article ‘Gone Boys’, over the last decade, women have been the most experimental, churning out exciting, ground-breaking material. The likes of Sally Rooney, Zadie Smith, Elizabeth Strout and Hilary Mantel forging and redefining genres, while eight of the ten bestselling novels of the 2010s were written by women.
Women read more than men – a fact we see reflected in our own subscriber base. In fact, they account for 80% of all book sales in the UK, US and Canadian markets! Yet the prejudice prevails.
The truth is that women’s writing is considered less serious than that written by a man.
The feedback for Catherine Nicholl’s pages under her own name was patronising and differed vastly to the critique her invented male author, ‘George’, received. One agent who sent Catherine a formal rejection letter asked to read George’s entire novel and then passed it on to a more senior agent!
Women writers are less discussed, reviews and promoted than VIDA, a non-profit, intersectional feminist literary organisation, aims to expose the gender imbalances of the literary world, and produces an annual report on the gender breakdown within a range of major literary publications and book reviews.
Their counts from 2010 have shown that women, non-binary and trans authors have been and continue to be horrifically overlooked by the most popular literary publications, including The London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement
The latest report, from 2018, is more promising though. While the publications above continue to display dismal levels of diversity, many others have pushed forward to increase the number of women writers in their publications and some, like Poetry and Ninth Letter, have included more non-binary writers too!
Transparency about the gender inequality in the literary landscape is essential if we hope to move forward and balance the scales. Organisations like VIDA, who hold those who sustain the canon accountable, as well as engaged writers, readers and reviewers, have the power to change the future of literature.
In 2022, we’ll see a new literary prize introduced. The North American equivalent to the UK’s Women’s Prize, the Carol Shields prize for fiction will be open to US and Canadian women and non-binary authors and offer a staggering CAD$150,000 cash reward.
What’s more, the winner will be asked to choose and mentor another writer, working together on writing fellowships. Runners up will be given a writer-in-residency at a Canadian or American university and the prize committee will present a grant to a woman writer who is a recent immigrant or refugee.
And what can you do to help tip the scales? Continue to buy, read and rave about women, trans and non-binary writers.
For further reading: