Why are women now dominating the literary landscape?
There are several reasons for what appears to be a significant trend reversal
Bernadine Evaristo, who won the Booker prize with Margaret Atwood in 2019. Photograph: Jennie Scott
The past few years have been a boon for women novelists, often young and often literary debutantes. Sally Rooney is the standard bearer of this trend. And though we should resist comparisons between two successful female writers simply for the sake of it, snapping at Rooney’s ankles is Naoise Dolan (28) with her accomplished (if slightly naive) debut Exciting Times.
Dolan’s refreshingly sharp perspective on how women are perceived, coupled with Rooney’s stratospheric success, and Anna Burn’s Milkman winning the Man Booker Prize in 2018 all point to one thing: books by, and about, women are in vogue.
This upsurge in commercial success and critical acclaim is not just the preserve of Irish women, of course. In 2019 the Booker Prize was awarded to two women (that the award was split between Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo was a disappointingly lazy cop-out from the judges and no comment on the inimitable talents of either author). And so too this year the Booker Prize longlist contains just four men out of the total 13. Women’s domination of the literary landscape seems all but complete. But of course it raises the question: Why? And why now?
In light of the Booker Prize longlist this year, deputy books editor at The Times of London James Marriott asked: “Where are the new male hotshot novelists?” It seems likely that the answer to his question would too contain the answer to mine. And to an extent, it does.
There are the obvious reasons for what appears to be a significant trend reversal. Women make up about 80 per cent of those who buy novels – it follows, then, that it is perhaps likely that women like buying books written by women.
The increasing democratisation of the publishing industry has also got something to do with it. Publishing is no longer run from the very top by a small group of men. It is abundantly obvious (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before) that an industry dominated solely by men is more likely to favour the work of men, seeing them preferred over their female counterparts. But that women writers are enjoying such sustained prominence in the fiction market at the same time that more women are entering the publishing industry is further proof of this. As Marriott points out: since “women have fought their way to many of the top jobs in the publishing industry, the advantage enjoyed by male novelists has melted away”.
Taken together these trends go part of the way to explaining the current topography of the literary landscape. But something else is happening too.
Feminism has been a mainstream concern for decades, thankfully. But since the 2010s it has taken on a new flavour – highly commodified and highly marketable. The ubiquity of T-shirts emblazoned with milquetoast statements about gender equality (Dior’s 2017 “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt springs to mind) is just one example of how blandly gesturing towards feminism can lead to big profits. And it makes one thing very clear: women sell. No doubt literary agents and publishing houses are well aware of this fact.
Rooney caught the moment masterfully, entering into a literary market that was waiting with baited breath to make a superstar out of a young woman. Of course, it is Rooney’s distinct talent (though perhaps slightly overwrought by her biggest fans) that is the driving factor behind her success. If it were not, then every female writer would have a several-time Emmy nominated TV series based on their latest novel.
But what her success also points to is a market that is ready to ride on the coattails of marketable feminism, selling novels that are not just by women, but also selling the idea of the woman as a writer and a product in and of herself.
But it would be too cynical to chalk up the recent spate of talented young women enjoying commercial success simply to a changing zeitgeist that now favours young women’s voices and engenders an antipathy to men’s – important as that may be. What we are seeing is books written by women no longer being dismissed simply as “women’s fiction”, as though that is a meaningful category in and of itself.
Though it would be glib to assume that these women have come from nowhere. The Rooneys, Dolans and Burns of the world owe a lot to their predecessors too. The groundbreakers – female novelists of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s (Doris Lessing, Jeanette Winterson, Amy Tan and so many more) – showed the stars of today what was possible. And proved that fiction was not the sole preserve of the Saul Bellows, Jonathan Franzens and Salman Rushdies of the world (worthy of huge accolade and acclaim though they may be).
Instead we are seeing a long overdue recognition of something that has always been obvious: there was no good reason for the literary world to be dominated by men. We should celebrate the change, and not forget the women who paved the way.