vant to the way we live now.’ Women writers have now assumed their place in the literary canon and two years ago scooped every major prize. There is even a female Poet Laureate. Despite such victories, not all the sisters are throwing their Phrygian caps in the air. ‘I did a recent event with Jenny Colgan and Margaret Drabble,’ recalls Marika Cobbold, whose novels include Frozen Music and Guppies for Tea. ‘While we all felt that women are not discriminated against in terms of sales, we still are when it comes to newspaper review coverage. The broadsheets will review with great reverence a male writer’s book that would be regarded as chick lit if it were by a woman.’
She is not alone in her belief. Novelist Amanda Craig believes too often women are not regarded as portraying universal truths of equal validity to men. Though women are receiving more review coverage, those writing contemporary fiction dealing with modern British society, struggle for recognition. ‘Male critics rarely review us and few women, especially those over 40, can’t resist being snide or patronising,’ she claims. ‘I can always rely on a woman to mention my having been a journalist – what would they rather I did? Nothing? – as if this somehow made me less of a stylist as a novelist.’
Cobbold agrees, and contrasts the coverage Craig received for her last novel Hearts and Minds with that given to Sebastian Faulks’ A Week In December. Both books deal with contemporary issues and are set in London, but whereas Faulks merited full-page reviews and several broadsheet interviews, Craig, whose novel was acclaimed and hailed as ‘important,’ was relegated to second or third lead on the page. Other coverage was limited, much of it generated by the writer herself. ‘I don’t think it is a big male conspiracy to ignore women and not take them seriously,’ Cobbold says. ‘It’s just that their eyes glaze over if they even sniff anything they perceive as a “woman’s issue.”’
Literary women writers are also undermined in the media by an apparent obsession with appearance and personal issues. An interview with Joanna Trollope or Zadie Smith is as likely to focus on what she is wearing
as the ideas she is expressing. A couple of years ago I interviewed Trollope and asked her about a particularly vicious interview (by a woman) in one of the broadsheets. The interviewer had referred to her ‘peeling off a tiny Chanel jacket’ and snapping shut a ‘tiny’ handbag. Throughout, it talked about her weight. These comments implied a lack of gravitas in Trollope’s writing. ‘Would she have written about Ian McEwan or Martin Amis like that?’ asked an incensed Trollope.
The sneering dismissal of much contemporary women’s fiction under soubriquets such as ‘chick lit,’ ‘aga saga’ and ‘clogs and shawl’ fail women writers in two ways. First, the tags (invariably coined by men – Terence Blacker, who came up with ‘aga saga’ has openly expressed his regret),
do not acknowledge that sales from these genres subsidise publishers’ lists. Second, they are blanket terms for women writers with the same cover treatments rather than writing quality. Publishers and booksellers who dictate covers designed to take a book to the widest possible audience, carry much responsibility for this, as Brayfield notes: ‘If a book couldn’t be marketed as chick lit, publishers didn’t want to know – and a whole generation of women writers was mis-marketed to oblivion on that ticket. I think the industry still has difficulty with female literary authors. There is an underlying assumption that a woman writer is a genre writer.’
Even those happy with the genre label believe they are still taken less seriously than their male counterparts. A male crime writer like Ian Rankin may be asked to front serious arts shows or appear on political debates or have his latest book promoted with interviews in the main section of a Sunday broadsheet; the same cannot be said for literary women working in more definably ‘female’ genres, such as romance. ‘Many times I’ve heard men say, “I don’t read books by women.” The reverse? Never!’ says Chris Manby, who has 13 bestsellers to her name. She adds, with a note of sarcasm, ‘I think there was a certain amount of jealousy [about chick lit] fuelled by the fact that it looked so easy. Thinking up a crime plot or inventing a new universe probably seems more daunting.’
It is into this post-Richard & Judy world that Mslexia enters its
THE BEST OF TIMES…
The past decade has seen unprecedented change in the book industry. I asked writers, agents and publishers to nominate the top five: >> Explosion of choice for the book buyer: books are now available everywhere, from the internet to the grocer’s. It has democratised reading, making books accessible to those intimidated by traditional outlets. >> The internet: it has proved to be an invaluable tool to writers, whether they are researching characters and places or talking directly to their readers through blogs and social networking sites. >> The rise of the Smart Independent Press: the growth of SIPs like Profile, Canongate and Grove/Atlantic has given an outlet to edgy writers whose work is not deemed commercial enough by the big presses. >> Women at the top: The glass ceiling lies in shards on the boardroom floor. Of the big four conglomerates, Random House, Penguin/Pearson, HarperCollins and Hachette, only Hachette is not headed by a woman. Democratisation of criticism: led by book groups and Richard & Judy the hegemony of the predominantly male critical establishment has been broken. Now to sell a book, you need to get it into the hands of cultural icons rather than cultural commentators.
…THE WORST OF TIMES
Not everything that has happened in the past ten years has benefited writers or readers. I asked writers, publishers and agents to nominate the five worst developments: >> The cult of the celebrity: celebrity books have heralded the end of serious nonfiction. Though they generate profits, they also soak them up in high advances, marketing spends and attention. >> Richard & Judy: the tv duo’s success in promoting books polarised book sales into megaselling titles endorsed on the R&J sofa and the rest, which floundered. >> Slow-burn careers: large publishers paying huge advances to celebrities and R&J shoe-ins saved money by cutting authors from their lists whose first couple of books failed to sparkle, leaving them with no time to build a career. >> Price wars: as supermarkets and Amazon fought for customers with cut price books, those outside special promotions were left looking expensive, and their sales reflected that perception. >> DIY PR: authors have increasingly less time to write thanks to expectations that they will work hard to raise their profile in the media and build a following through events and the internet. DK
10 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09 Agenda
Agent Sarah Ballard of United Agents agrees with Brayfield that the chick lit peg undermined the market for more literary women writers. ‘I think the term and its success in the 90s may have done a great deal to give readers the illusion that women weren’t writing intelligently on serious subjects,’ she says, ‘and to give writers the idea that publishers weren’t interested in them doing so. Of course they always were, but it seems to me a very positive thing that that perception is now more balanced.’
One ingredient in changing the perception of women writers and readers was the rise of Richard & Judy, which followed Oprah in the United States with a book club. Chosen by the show’s producer, Amanda Ross and her team, the R&J Book Club has gained a level of notoriety in recent years for its ability to soak up sales with its recommended books at the expense of the rest of the market. But the show, alongside the boom in reading groups – which are dominated by women – has had a wider cultural impact: it has challenged publishers’ perceptions of what women will read. When Richard & Judy announced it was starting a book club there was huge scepticism among publishers about what books would benefit. But the show’s ability to steer hundreds of thousands of its predominantly female audience into bookshops to buy ‘difficult’ literary books revolutionised those perceptions. ‘The show broke prejudices better than any retailer could,’ recalls Jonny Geller, joint managing director of Curtis Brown. ‘Women read everything. Men tend to be easier to pigeonhole, and R&J managed to expand the reading of the predominantly female audience by breaking the rigidity of marketing departments.’
But he adds, the show’s success in promoting midlist books – well-written books without a huge hook – has created a problem now that it has been dropped. ‘Without the show, retailers seem clueless about what to recommend and how to convince readers a book is worth a try,’ he points out. It is bad news for everyone – male, female, writer or reader.
It is into this post-Richard & Judy world that Mslexia enters its second decade. It is a world in which women writers, on the one hand, are far better equipped thanks to the plethora of creative writing courses, agencies and social networking sites offering help and alternative means of building new audiences. It is also a world in which women readers are taken very seriously, although the death of the nation’s favourite TV sofa show has left the industry struggling to know how to reach them. It is also a decade in which a female writer can rationally expect to deal with women at every level in their publishing house – from agent to editor to sales to managing director.
But that does not mean the struggle for equality is over, as publisherturned-agent Sarah Such points out: ‘By all accounts it would seem that women are often still paid less than their male counterparts. And senior directors,’ she adds, ‘don’t necessarily have positions on the main board. Young women are the backbone of publishing, but there is a worrying tendency for that support to lessen once they have children, or for senior figures to return from maternity leave to downgraded jobs.’
Outside the publishing house there remain battles to win, and what a woman wears to an interview with a newspaper persists in being more interesting to interviewers than anything she has to say. Which is why in the next decade, a publication with the feminist agenda of a magazine like Mslexia still has an important role to play.
EBOOKS: THE NEXT GENERATION
One of the most over-hyped developments of the past ten years has been electronic books, or ebooks. At the tail end of the 1990s, industry commentator Mike Shatzkin was predicting in The Bookseller that within five years the paper book would be dead and we would all have migrated to electronic devices that stored hundreds of books. It would be the book industry’s own iPod moment. Ten years on, that moment has failed to materialise. But there are signs that things may be changing, thanks to a battle taking place between electronics giant Sony and web retail behemoth Amazon. Amazon’s ereader Kindle is expected to launch in the UK before Christmas, but as Mslexia went to press, Sony announced the launch of the next generation of Sony Readers. The two models, including one touch screen, can store up to 350 books, are slim, small, portable, have long battery lives (500 pages a day for two weeks can be read), and are very stylish – if you like Notebook computers. But they do not come cheap. The Reader Touch Edition, which includes Oxford English Dictionary software, a stylus and note-taking and pagemarking functions, retails at £249.99. The Pocket Edition, which has more limited functionality, retails at £179.99. And that is not the only cost involved. Though users can download hundreds of out-of-copyright classics from Sony’s website and though – in a stroke of marketing genius (or madness) – Waterstone’s is offering purchasers a free copy of Dan Brown’s latest bound-to-be-bestselling opus The Lost Symbol, anyone wishing to buy something weightier and in copyright will be paying the same as they would for a full price hardback or paperback. The refusal of publishers to discount electronic versions of their books reflects an industry already stung by deep discounting on the traditional product, but it also threatens to strangle at birth the ebook market. Who in their right mind is going to blithely shell out £7.99 for a paperback on top of £250 for a Reader when they can get the ultimate reading device – a paper book – for less than a fiver in Tesco? Publishers argue that they are investing heavily in digital warehousing to create a library of books for ereaders and having to pay authors the same, if not enhanced, royalty on ebooks as paper books. It means they have little in the pot to pass on to punters. These are sound arguments within the industry, but they cut no ice with the average consumer who knows and cares little for publishing economics. Instead they feel ripped off that they are paying almost twice as much for an ebook as a paper book. Reader fans will say that the devices are must-have kit, style statements that mark the user out as a player. Well, I am not convinced. What do these books feel like to use? A bit disappointing if I am honest. I am a self-confessed tech head, early adopting every bit of kit I can get my hands on. But this bit of kit? It ain’t no iPod. In fact it feels more like a Notebook for books. Even in the girly pink, it seems a bit too serious, sober and sensible. And how ereaders look is a crucial bit of thinking left out of the debate. Books are already style statements, their covers a tribal badge of honour. But if we are what we are seen to be reading, the tribe I imagine clutching onto their Sony Reader consists of middle managers reading business books between meetings in motorway service stations. It is for that reason alone than I believe the launch of the next generation of Sony Readers is no iPod tipping point for books. DK
Danuta Kean is a journalist and publishing commentator. She lectures about the book business on the Brunel University MA in Creative Writing.