Between the Covers
What’s the current state of the UK publishing nation? A decade after Mslexia launched, Danuta Kean opens the book on the industry to see what’s changed, what’s new – and how women are faring.
8 | Mslexia.co.uk | Oct / Nov / Dec 09 Agenda
When I joined trade magazine The Bookseller just over ten years ago, the publishing industry I found shocked me. Though women appeared to make up 90 per cent of its workforce, there was only one woman, Gail Rebuck of Random House, running the board. Further down the food chain, women may have staffed the editorial, marketing and publicity departments, but few exercised executive responsibility. As for older women, something peculiar seemed to happen as soon as they reached 40: all but a handful disappeared from the corporate scene.
It was particularly shocking because, while women struggled to be taken seriously in the boardroom, even the most brazenly sexist marketing man admitted that women readers were the industry cash cow – without them the vast empires of conglomerates would crumble. And the disconnect between publishing’s profit base and the career structure for women reflected a more disturbing picture of how women were regarded as readers. ‘Publishing still retained a particular strand of tweedy, misogynistic elitism and the 90s had added a macho, sales-obsessed element that was equally dismissive of women readers and women writers,’ recalls author Celia Brayfield, who heads up the Brunel University Creative Writing MA.
This sexism spread to the way women writers were treated by the serious media. A scan of book coverage – from reviews to interviews – in the broadsheets revealed a clear bias in favour of men. As for the prizes, the juries of the biggest one, the Booker, consistently overlooked singular works by women to the point where, in 1991, they omitted to include any women on the shortlist.
But much can happen in ten years. And for women in publishing – whether writers or publishers – the news is on the whole good. In the decade since Mslexia launched, women have turned a working environment that lagged behind other creative industries into one in which they are no longer rare voices in the boardroom. There are now women heads of sales, marketing, publicity, design, editorial and publishing, as well as chairs of the board. Those critics who dismissed women’s writing as mundane, domestic and, worst of all, merely ‘commercial’ (a euphemism for ‘sells well, but lacks merit’), have been discredited.
So how have things changed and what have been the primary drivers of change in the past decade? Leading the way for women writers was the Orange Prize for Fiction, which launched in 1996, headed by publisher
turned-author and broadcaster Kate Mosse. The impetus to launch the prize stemmed directly from that infamous 1991 Booker Prize shortlist. Concerned that high-calibre women writers were not making the cut – and benefiting from the inherent publicity – 40 leading men and women from all sides of the publishing world met to discuss what to do.
Mosse is adamant that they were not trying to make sure women weren’t left out, rather that they felt the situation reflected a deeper malaise within the literary establishment. ‘It was more a sense that what was judged of
value in literary terms seemed to be exclusively male,’ she explains. ‘The work of women writers was just not seen as serious and so was not what the prizes were looking at.’
The reaction of the press to a prize judged exclusively by and for women merely confirmed the impression that in the UK the odds were stacked against literary women writers. The coverage was vituperative. The Orange Prize was ‘sour grapes’ from women who lacked the talent and grand vision of their masculine rivals, it was claimed. Pointing to the handful of women who had won the Booker – including Anita Brookner, Penelope Lively and AS Byatt – they rejected the claim that institutional sexism was undermining women’s ability to compete against men. Much of the criticism was voiced by women journalists, as if a female voice made it more legitimate (a tendency that remains depressingly true, but more of that later). Mosse believes that the criticism reflected an entrenched conservatism within the book world rather than out-andout sexism: ‘We assume that everybody is interested in fairness and equality of opportunity,’ she says. ‘But often people like the status quo.’
For Clare Alexander, literary agent and fellow Orange Prize founder, the fact that the prize highlighted fiction by women overlooked by the literary pages, challenged its critics. This was exemplified by Anne Michaels’ 1997 win with Fugitive Pieces: the book came from nowhere. Though subsequent winners, including Carol Shields and Linda Grant, further raised its profile, Alexander believes Andrea Levy’s win with Small Island in 2004 was the watershed. ‘The Man Booker was a very hit and miss affair at that time and seemed to rather lose its way,’ she says. ‘Meanwhile, the Orange had a succession of brilliant but accessible books that seemed to perfectly reflect the complexity of the world we inhabit, at a time when several Booker winners, some even by women, did not feel hugely rele-
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.
I S TO C K P H OTO
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