Throwing the book at sexism in publishing

Tramp Press’s Sarah Davis-Goff asks writers submitting work to list literary influences. Only 33 out of 148 were women. Would-be authors, take a long, hard look at your bookshelves

I have experienced sexism at the loveliest parties. At a reading or a launch, during a perfectly nice chat with very respectable people, I’ll suddenly find that my blood is boiling. It’s always a shock to witness actual, articulated sexism, so it takes me a while to process the fact that I have just been told by the guy I’m talking to that he doesn’t read female writers. He doesn’t see why he should. Likewise, it took me a while to regroup after my business partner Lisa Coen and I were told that publishing a literary novel written by a woman, with three female protagonists, would be very difficult.

My own experiences of sexism in publishing, however, are just a subtle above-water middle finger, belying the massive iceberg beneath. There is a serious gender issue in publishing.

Every year a literary arts organisation called Vida conducts a simple count of the gender of the authors whose books are reviewed in major publications (including the Times Literary Supplement, the New Yorker, The Paris Review, Harper's, the London Review of Books and so on). The numbers are really worth checking out, but the bottom line is that the large majority of literary fiction reviewed is written by men. The Vida count shows that reviewers too are more likely to be male.

Last year British writer Joanna Walsh talked about the issue in the Guardian, citing the Vida count and pointing to other problems within the industry, like gendered cover art. Walsh asked individual readers to take action against sexist reading habits by examining their own bookshelves and behaviours, and actively committing to reading more books by women for 2014 - the #ReadWomen hashtag is still working as an agent of change.


Meanwhile, a study published by novelist Nicola Griffith concerning literary prizes found that books with male perspectives by male writers are more likely to win awards. The more prestigious the award in question, the likelier it is that the protagonist and the author will be male.

Just a few days ago, writer Joanna Harris talked about her experiences of sexism in the industry in a series of tweets. Her experiences seem depressingly familiar: being marginalised by male reviewers: being told by a group of men at a party that they don't read female writers. Harris has also been assured that there isn't a problem with sexism in publishing, by a man who doesn't work in publishing – unfortunately there's plenty more where that came from in the comments section.

So if you’re a person that writes literary fiction and you happen to have a vagina, it’s less probable that your work will be reviewed in a top-tier literary journal or paper. If your protagonist does not have a penis, your work is statistically less likely to win major literary awards. Awards, reviews and everyday experience tell us, and have been telling us for years, that the viewpoints and experiences of women are less relevant and meaningful to the world than those of men.

I see variations on this theme pretty all the time on Tramp Press’s slush pile.

Slush is what publishers call unsolicited manuscripts that writers submit. It’s an ugly name for a beautiful thing: slush is a smorgasbord of literary interpretations of the world, a hive of thought and creativity and work and sweat, and at Tramp we’re grateful for every manuscript we receive. Reading slush is one of my favourite parts of a frankly brilliant job, and we pride ourselves on responding quickly, and on recognising (and backing) talent when we see it.

Last week Tramp Press received its 1,000th submission. Over the last couple of years Lisa and I have read more than a thousand pitches, a thousand cover letters. With a number this large, certain patterns become obvious. On our submissions guidelines on the Tramp website Lisa and I ask writers to talk about their influences: it’s always interesting to see what people are reading and being informed by, and where a particular writer would place their work in terms of style or theme.

Inspired by the other counters – the people working at Vida; Nicola Griffith – I conducted a tally of my own. Out of the last 100 submissions, 148 influences have been referenced. Only 33 of the writers listed as influences are female. 33 out of 148. I read letter after letter from well-meaning, perfectly nice men and women who list reams of writers they admire, without apparently noticing that the writers they are listing are all of one gender.

This hapless exclusion of the writing and experiences of women is really disheartening. If a writer lists two influences and they both happen to male – well, fair enough. They never both happen to be female, though, and receiving list after list of five, seven, 10 or more male influences is disturbing. It points again to the larger issue in the industry: our habitual, unchecked dismissal of the experiences, viewpoints and brilliant work of women.

Pointing out the problem is a small success in itself, but tackling it is another question. Joanna Walsh’s response to the Vida count was to invite individuals to take note of their own habits, and to take fairly small actions to effect change. If our bookshelves, upon inspection, look like they’re all written by a type of person, or a certain gender, let’s try to cast our net more widely. This isn’t about being politically correct, to be clear, it’s about acknowledging and checking our own privilege and prejudices. I certainly need to check myself: when I look at my bookshelf, I don’t that much work from writers of colour, and that’s something I’ll be working on.

We all know that the thing I’m talking about here doesn’t just happen in literature; we see it in music, in film, in government, in sports, online, in real life, all around us. If our conference or festival panels only represent one gender, let’s think about that. If we happen to be casting a commercial about sports and see that we have only included male athletes, let’s acknowledge that as a problem. In fact, if we’re making any list; of contributors, influences, politicians, sports stars, of people who should run the country, and it excludes every demographic but one, let’s please try again.

It is not okay to dismiss the work and the perspective of a gender, just as it’s not acceptable to dismiss a nationality, say, or a race, whether purposely or thoughtlessly. When we refer to one gender almost exclusively – for literature, or music, or anything – we are neglecting the other, and we are becoming oppressors to both.

In the meantime, if you feel like coming up to me at a lovely party to tell me you don’t see why you should read women, you better check yourself.