"female readers of romantic fiction were still generally dismissed by the men who run literary papers."And a similar point was made by Debbie Taylor (below), the editor of Mslexia, in a piece in today's Independent.
"Men simply don't like women's writers," Taylor says. "When men buy fiction they won't go near women's fiction." But with more women becoming publishing editors and newspaper literary editors, some of the hurdles women writers face are being removed. "It's not that they prefer books by women but situations that were actively hostile to women in the past aren't any more," she says.The first quote there is something of a sweeping statement. Looking back at my holiday reading, I find that five of the six books that I read were by women. I would also challenge the way that Taylor switches between "women's fiction" and "books by women" as if these were the same thing.
I have had a look at some recent broadsheet book review sections. Friday's Independent has five proper reviews of novels (I am ignoring short stories, poetry and children's fiction for the purposes of this exercise):
- Elizabeth Speller on The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd
- Roz Kaveny on The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
- Christina Patterson on Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk
- Wendy Brandmark on Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
- Shusha Guppy on Glass Houses by Sandra Howard
Saturday's theguardian has four full reviews of novels:
- Helen Dunmore on Restless by William Boyd
- James Lasdun on Arlington Park
- Peter Dempsey on Special Topics in Calamity Physics
- Rowan Pelling on Vocational Girl by "Rosa Mundi"
What does this tell us, if anything. One thing that struck me was that all the Independent reviews (with the exception of the Caryl Phillips mini) were written by women, but that is not immediately relevant.
Of the seven books given full reviews, four were by women and three by men. Of the paperback minis, four and a half were by men and one and a half by women (Maj Slowall is a woman and Per Wahloo a man). Of the crime minis one was by a man and three by women.
This is of course far too small a sample to draw firm conclusions upon, but it does not suggest an overwhelming bias towards male writers.
There is of course the fact that Crime is widely seen as popular fiction for men, and there is a crime round-up but no equivalent Romantic round-up, but that does not seem to have disadvantaged female writers per se.
But I said above that I did not accept that "books by women" and "women's fiction" are the same thing. Of the books reviewed, can any be considered "women's fiction"? I think that two of them can be. Sandra Howard's Glass Houses fits very comfortably into the category and so, arguably, does Vocational Girl (behind that Rosa Mundi pseudonym lurks Fay Weldon).
Glass Houses is given a very positive review ("Howard weaves the varied strands of her ingenious plot into a smooth and exciting narrative"), Vocational Girl less so ("fearful tosh"), but it appears that this week at least, two broadsheet newspapers have given over space to publish proper reviews not just of books by women, but of women's fiction.
Does two reviews out of nine reflect the relative sales of women's fiction when compared to fiction as a whole? Of course not.
But should the balance of books reviewed in broadsheet book sections reflect the overall pattern of sales? Now that is a question that I will return to at some later date.