J.K Rowling – one of the world’s most successful authors, was encouraged to not put her first name “Joanne” by her publishing agents, following the logic that “Boys actively don’t read books written by women”.
Why is it, that many of the most popular books series like Harry Potter, feature a male protagonist? Why is it that a novel with a male main character is far more likely to win a literary prize?
Author Nicola Griffith analysed the last 15 years of winners of six major literary awards and found that a novel is more likely to land a prize if the focus of the narrative is male. Griffith looked at the winners of the Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book award, National Book Critics’ Circle award, Hugo and Newbery medal and found that “women wrote zero out of 15 prize-winning books wholly from the point of view of a woman or girl”.
The Man Booker, between 2000 and 2014, was won by 9 books by men about men or boys, 3 books by women about men or boys, 2 books by women about women or girls, and one book by a woman writer about both.
Griffith found that he US National Book award over the same period, was won by 8 novels by men about men, 2 books by women about men, one book by a man about both, 3 books by a woman about both, and 2 books by women about women.
As she explained: “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to literary prizes, the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women. Either this means that women writers are self-censoring, or those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring. Certainly the results argue for women’s perspectives being considered uninteresting or unworthy. Women seem to have literary cooties.”
In 2014, author Joanna Walsh launched the “Year of Reading Women” and runs the twitter #readwomen project and account @read_women – but it seems it hasn’t been enough. Novelist Kamila Shamsie has called for a “Year of Publishing Women in 2018” in order to “redress the inequality”.
« He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. »
– Catherine Nichols
Author Catherine Nichols decided to investigate this phenomenon first hand, after having sent out her manuscript 50 times and only receiving 2 manuscript requests, she created a fake male name for herself “George Leyer” and sent out the exact same cover letter and manuscript extract. She detailed her experience for Jezebel in the article: “Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name”.
She discovered that, when sending out her the same page samples and cover letter but from her new fake male email address to 50 more agents, she got a manuscript request 17 times.
“He (George) is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25,” said Nichols. “The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me – Catherine.”
Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym, whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work”, were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”.
“No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty,” wrote Nichols, who tried not to overlap her submissions, but did reveal that one agent who sent her a formal rejection as “Catherine” asked to read “George’s” book, and then asked to send it to a more senior agent. The agents, she adds, were both men and women, “which is not surprising because bias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive”.
In 2013, there was an outcry over Wikipedia’s segregation of “American women novelists” in to a separate category, removed from American male novelists.
It’s an all too familiar feeling, this question of being a woman and a writer, instead of simply a writer, which Margaret Atwood details through an anecdote in “Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews”:
“Some years ago I was on a panel — that polygonal form of discourse so beloved of the democratic twentieth century — consisting entirely of women, including Jan Morris, who used to be James Morris, and Nayantara Sahgal of India. From the audience came the question “How do you feel about being on a panel of women?” We all prevaricated. Some of us protested that we had been on lots of panels that included men; others said that most panels were male, with a woman dotted here and there for decorative effect, like parsley. Jan Morris said that she was in the process of transcending gender and was aiming at becoming a horse, to which Nayantara Sahgal replied that she hoped it was an English horse, since in some other, poorer countries, horses were not treated very well. Which underlined, for all of us, that there are categories other than male or female worth considering.
I suppose all should have said, “Why not?” Still, I was intrigued by our collective uneasiness. No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman; but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone — an attitude that may puzzle, hurt, or enrage those whose political priorities cause them to view writing as a tool, a means to an end, rather than as a vocation subject to a Muse who will desert you if you break trust with your calling.”
Just why is it assumed, that women write for women and men write for everyone? Just where does it come from, that women’s writing is inappropriate somehow for a male audience or is deemed to girly, too ostracizing without a male protagonist?
One of my favourite series of books, the Earthsea Quartet by the incredible Ursula K. LeGuin features a male protagonist, with a population of only male wizards – women are inferior priestesses or witches. Similarly, the superb Giver Quartet by Lois Lowry has a male hero: female writers who feel the need to write as a boy, to make their fantasy tales more “accessible”.
But sadly, they’re not wrong. As a bookseller at Shakespeare & Company, I have seen this reality far too many times in person: “My son won’t read a book with a heroine.” Although maybe Katniss is finally starting to change that…
But I’ll never forget, when a stern, elderly American lady asked me, “Do you have a male colleague who could help me?” I informed her that I’m sure I’d be more than able to assist her.
She then looked at me and said somewhat gruffly, “Well, I’m looking for a book for my husband you see.”