#ReadWomen2014: A good idea and why we need it

copywright Joanna WalshI finished Friday’s review of Helen Dunmore’s superb new novel The Lie with a longstanding gripe of mine: despite her extraordinary talent and versatility – she’s an award-winning poet, a children’s author, and her fiction ranges from profound and thoughtful novels such as The Siege to psychological thrillers such as Burning Bright – I have never seen Dunmore rated alongside the male cannon of her generation, several of whom she can write the socks off. She’s far from the only women writer not given her due: an American survey of review coverage conducted annually since 2010 highlights major disparities between the sexes for both the US and the UK. It’s particularly troubling as the book trade is dominated by women: many more women work in bookselling than men, publishing employs a large number of women with two at the top of the tree until last year – Gail Rebuck stepped down as CEO of Random House UK and Victoria Barnsley left her position as CEO of HarperCollins UK abruptly. My experience as a bookseller was that far more women than men bought books too. Why, then, are many women writers not getting the recognition that they deserve?

This isn’t going to be a rant – pleasurable as those often are it’s far, far better to address the problem and try to do something about it than simply shout loudly and angrily until no one is listening – nor am I going to bamboozle you with statistics, although if you click on the link in the paragraph above you can find out what they are. I want, instead, to draw your attention to an interesting and inventive Twitter initiative aimed at raising the profile of women writers, highlighted by The Guardian who have paid a good deal of attention to this issue. Joanna Walsh’s #readwomen2014 seems to be gaining a lot of interest from both men and women. Walsh celebrated the beginning of the year by presenting bookmark-shaped New Year’s cards on which she’d drawn several of her favourite women authors with lists of books on the back. A few friends suggested she Tweet the lists and a hash tag was born. On a smaller scale, but well worth a visit, is The Writes of Women dedicated to reviewing women writers and set up a year ago by a fellow book blogger dismayed at the revelation of the pitiful amount of coverage given to books by women in 2012. As for my own reading, a quick survey of 2013 suggests two-thirds of the books I read are by women. How about you? What do you think about the coverage given to women writers? Why do you think that male writers are more reviewed and get more recognition than women writers? How do you feel about it? Does the sex of an author matter to you, or are you gender blind when it comes to reading?

19 thoughts on “#ReadWomen2014: A good idea and why we need it”

  1. I love women writers, it just happens that this month I have read more men than I often do. But then my choice of what to read is never determined by gender. However I do think the readwomen2014 initiative is an excellent one. Many of the women I love to read are no longer with us, some of them fell out of favour or out of print before being ressurected by publishers like Virago and Persephone. I intend to celebrate some of those women in the forth coming literary blog hop giveaway.

    1. I tend to gravitate towards women writers too, Ali, simply because they’re good rather than for any other reason but I’m appalled by the statistics and have long felt that women’s writing is often overlooked or even dismissed. Your giveaway soundes like an excellent way to celebrate them.

  2. I think they are all fabulous initiatives that will contribute to more women reviewing books written by women especially. I do think books written by women are being read, but most of the big publications and media outlets which publish reviews, as shown in the VIDA survey, are presenting reviews written by men and often they are writing about books also written by men.

    Given this, it is good that we all have greater awareness of the underexposure of women authors. It has recently been pointed out as well, that of the very low amount of translated fiction that is available in English, very little of it is work by women authors.

    I wouldn’t say I have a preference for one or the other, but I have noticed that among my very favourite books, there are more men than women, which has made me think about why I like those authors and whether there are female equivalents. No doubt there are, I just haven’t found them yet, my personal challenge!

    I think male reviewers get reviewed more, from what I have read on the subject, because they are more proactive in putting their proposals forward – at least that’s what some of the review editors have said – women wait to be asked, men don’t, they are more proactive. Now there’s a challenge to anyone who writes reviews.

    I also think that with some publications/journals, it is more to do with the profile of their readership, to meet the demands of a readership, one usually surveys subscribers and I suspect with a few of the more traditional, long-established journals, if the majority of their subscribers are older males, then they are providing what they expect/know they want – as many men freely admit their preference and we are not going to change the stereotype among that group.

    I have never analysed my annual reading by gender, but I think I might do so, we have to know what we read before we can address the gaps, I do know that I read a lot more translated fiction since blogging, because I have a greater variety of reviews from which to elicit recommendations, bookshops and newspaper reviews are a narrow source to browse from.

    1. Thanks for your very thoughtful comments, Claire. I think that you are right about women not putting themselves forward which is a problem for us in many areas of our lives – women are much more diffident than men in negotiating freelance fees, for instance, myself included. You’re also spot on about translated fiction.

  3. I love women authors. Actually, I prefer them to men. There, I said it. Just of lately I’ve noticed that the books I love the most are written by women and they make up more than my 70% of every year’s reading. Also, when working with publicists, it’s all women who are out there working with books and making sure we, bloggers, get review copies, which is a great way to promote their authors.

    That said, there are extraordinary men authors out there, but, in my opinion, they already get enough promotion by being included in the so-called “canon” that everyone – apparently – needs to read. I even got into a huge fight with a fellow blogger some years ago because she wanted to enrich her life reading the canon which meant she was reading mainly white, middle-aged, dead British and American guys. It is sad that these ideas are still around, even at university. But we are here to fight them!!!!

    1. I think you’re spot on, Elena. There are many excellent male writers out there and I’ll continue to read them but, like you, I want their female counterparts to be given the same level of coverage so that they get the recognition they deserve. It’s great that Joanna Walsh has got so many people talking about it.

  4. I hadn’t seen the Walsh campaign so thank you for drawing my attention to it. One of the things that the bookseller at Heywood Hill remarked on when I gave her my list of preferred writers was that it was pretty evenly balanced between women and men and she seemed surprised that it was so. I didn’t think to follow it up at the time so I don’t know whether she was surprised at the number of women or that I was reading novels by male authors. What I think the list reflects, however, is that I am pretty much gender blind where reading is concerned. For me it is always going to be the quality of the writing that matters. Now if someone were to say to me that women had to write better than men in order to get published then I really would get my soapbox out.

    1. My figures chime with yours, Vicki, unplanned also. It’s good to see this campaign making us all think about it, though.

  5. Gender wouldn’t determine my choice of book – quality of writing, recommendation, reviews etc would. However having had a look over what I read last year it would appear that I read twice as many books by women as men. Interesting.

    1. It is interesting, isn’t it – my last year’s reading was about the same as seems to be the case for several other readers who’ve commented, all women. Perhaps I need to check H’s reading and see what his male/female writer ratio is for a male persepective.

  6. I love women writers – my PhD was on two of them (Colette and Marguerite Duras) and I regularly read more books written by women than by men. I applaud all initiatives designed to bring more review coverage to women’s writing who can STILL get tarred by that tired old brush of women’s fiction/chick-lit. It just goes to show how deep-rooted and prevalent gender inequality is, when you think of the likes of A.S. Byatt, Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, Siri Hustvedt, Donna Tartt, Zadie Smith, Jane Harris, Janet Frame, Eleanor Catton, Jhumpa Lahiri… need I go on?

    1. Nice to see several of my favourite authors in your list. I dislike the ‘women’s fiction/chick lit’ tag intensely – it’s so lazy. I’m also infuraited by the sexist manner in which women writers are often treated by the media, in particular comments made about Eleanor Catton’s appearance when she won the Orange. Can you imagine journalists commenting on Julian Barnes’ suit or Ian McEwan’s trousers? Ridiculous!

  7. I like to think I am gender blind in choosing my reading, but usually I read considerably more books by men. I do like to read some genre fiction (SF&F, Horror, Westerns) which is dominated by male writers, but if you take them out of the equation, my reading is nearer equal I expect.

    1. I see what you mean about genre fiction. I wonder what the review coverage is like for women relative to the proportion of books they write in a particular genre, if you see what I mean.

  8. Pingback: Reading Women… And Men | These Little Words

  9. Thanks for the mention. Been thinking about this a lot lately: it’s been a good year mostly (Booker Prize aside) but we’ve still got such a long way to go, particularly when it comes to the recognition of women from other cultures; women of colour; women from the LGBTQIA community, and working class women. All of them so woefully under-represented.

    1. I agree. I’d like to see the #readwomen14 initiative extended for another year. I have to admit I’ve let it lapse in my own tweets but have resolved to pick it up again for the last few weeks of the year.

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