Authorship versus content representation: What’s the way forward for equality?

Just over a week ago, author Kamila Shamsie spoke out publically, including in The Guardian and The Bookseller, proposing that 2018 should become the Year of Publishing Women (YPM), in order to help counterbalance the prevalent gender bias in Publishing towards male authors.

Why is YPW needed?

Much focus has been cast, especially in recent years, on literary prizes tending to favour male writers as winners. One of the most closely scrutinised prizes on this front has been the Man Booker Prize. Last year, it came under criticism once again when, on a longlist of 13 titles, only three were written by women. Though the Booker’s judging chairs are normally held by men, the panels themselves tend to be fairly evenly mixed between the genders. Yet, even an unbiased judging panel can only deal with the books submitted to them and that’s where the problem lies.

In the last five years, slightly under 40% of the submissions to the Booker have been written by women, that’s 20% less than submissions of books written by men. Interestingly, however, female writers have won exactly 40% of the prizes, so it is safe to assume that percentage of female winners would rise in response to more submissions written by women.

There can be no argument that this ratio is certainly better than it used to be, helped by movements such as the inception of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 20 years ago in response to a one memorably all-male Booker shortlist, but it is still nowhere near equal.

Literary prizes aren’t the only problem either: female authors tend to get less review coverage, less focus in the media, in interviews and in panel discussions inside and outside the trade.

In an effort to bring more balance to the industry, Shamsie proposed that 2018 should be the year of publishing only books by women. And, in response to that, the internet proceeded to explode with opinions.

The Reactions

Responses range from absolute support to those debating whether or not the proposal would actually help the feminist cause. The Bookseller published an excellent summary on the mixed responses from the trade, in which it was pointed out that female authors probably do much better than male authors in terms of sales and that we should focus on these successes instead of defeats.

However, from her Tweets hashtagged #NatCon (National Conversation), it appears that a large part of Shamsie’s goal may have been to bring these issues to the fore and get them talked about. Even if the YPW never happens, she has at least undeniably succeeded in that.

Indeed, Shamsie has opened up an industry-wide debate about the issues of diversity in authorship and in Publishing, not just with regards to gender, but also ethnicity, sexuality and culture. The content we produce and put forward, it seems, isn’t just suffering under male dominance; it’s suffering white middle-class dominance as well.

But what female protagonists?

Yet, in all this call for diversity, one area has been somewhat overlooked: the content itself. Though Shamsie briefly pointed out that recent research conducted by author Nicola Griffith shows a drastic bias towards male protagonists in books that win literary prizes, she made little further call for diversifying content. However, over the last 15 years, while only two Booker winners have had female protagonists and one both female and male, a whopping 12 had male protagonists. For the Pulitzer, the stats are even worse: for the last 15 winners, not one has had a female protagonist. To me, these are truly worrying statistics.

Content bias should concern us just as much as the identity of the authors we publish, because it doesn’t just affect the industry but also the wider reading audience. We cannot expect women and other under-represented groups to be seen equally and treated equally if we do not represent them properly in the content we produce. The Bechdel Test is an excellent example people attempting to address this issue in the film industry, though the test itself has come in for criticism.

It is not enough just to publish books by women: we need to be publishing books about women too.

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