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"Let’s have a year of publishing only women – a provocation" by Kamila Shamsie

In the five years in which slightly under 40% of the submitted books have been written by women, the percentage of women on the longlist has been slightly over 40%. The percentage of women on the shortlist has been 46%. The percentage of women who go on to win the prize has been exactly 40%. In this period, although four out of five of the chairs of the Booker juries have been men, there has been an almost even split of male and female jurors. The picture that starts to emerge from these statistics is one of judges who judge without gender bias but are hamstrung by publishers who submit with a strong tilt towards books by men. But, as is so often the case with statistics, there are other figures that complicate the story. The author Nicola Griffith recently published a study of prizewinning books on both sides of the Atlantic, broken down by the gender of their protagonists; it revealed that in the last 15 years, 12 of the Booker-winning novels have had male protagonists, two have had female protagonists, and one has had both male and female protagonists. The Booker does well compared with the Pulitzer across the Atlantic, which has had no female protagonist among its 15 winning books.

I could go on with the statistics and observations – the 64 male versus 36 female authors who make up the World Book Night picks of the last five years; the gendered decisions about how to package and describe male versus female authors; a recap of the Vida statistics that show how much more space male writers and reviewers receive in literary publications on either side of the Atlantic; the far greater propensity for male writers to pick other male writers when asked to recommend books. But at this point, I’m going to assume that the only people who really doubt that there is a gender bias going on are those who stick with the idea that men are better writers and better critics, and that when men recommend books by men it is fair literary judgment, while when women recommend books by women it is either a political position or woolly feminine judgment. To these people I have nothing to say except, go away and read some Toni Morrison.

Enough. Across the board, enough. Let’s agree that things have improved over the last 50 years, even over the last 20, and then let’s start to ask why. Was it simply the passage of time? Should we all sit around while the world continues on its slow upward trend towards equality? Or should we step outside that fictional narrative of progress and ask what actually helped to change literary culture in the UK? Two things come to mind: the literary presses of the 70s, of which Virago is the most notable; and the women’s prize for fiction. In part, what both the presses and the prize did was to create a space for women in a male-dominated world, giving voice and space to those who wouldn’t find them elsewhere.

I would argue that is time for everyone, male and female, to sign up to a concerted campaign to redress the inequality. Last year a number of readers, critics and at least one literary journal, the Critical Flame, signed up to a “Year of Reading Women” (for the Critical Flame it was female writers and writers of colour). Why not take it a step further? Why not have a Year of Publishing Women: 2018, the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK, seems appropriate.

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