On Saturday I popped over to Bristol to catch part of the inaugural Bristol Women’s Literature Festival. I was dipping my toe into this, partly because Literature Festivals have a habit of not wanting any of those icky science fiction people around lowering the tone of the occasion, and partly because events that tout their feminist credentials often don’t want the likes of me around. However, I wasn’t going to miss out on an opportunity to meet Stella Duffy, and thankfully none of my fears about the event were realized. The Festival looked to be a very successful. The panel I attended was packed out and very interesting, and the event had an inclusive atmosphere. Andrew Kelly of the Festival of Ideas, who helps promote the event, was smiling happily when I met him, which confirms that all was going well. My apologies to all the people I knew who happened to be in the Watershed bar afterwards, but I did have an important rugby match to go and watch.
The panel in question was Women’s Writing Today, featuring Bidisha in conversation with Stella Duffy, Beatrice Hitchman, Selma Dabbagh and Helen Dunmore. It was expertly moderated. Admittedly the panelists were all very polite — there wasn’t anyone constantly talking over the others in an effort to promote his book. However, having moderated many convention panels myself, I was able to admire the effortless way in which Bidisha controlled the conversation and gave everyone a chance to speak.
Discussion ranged fairly widely, but I’d like to focus mainly on the issue that Bidisha opened and closed the panel with: the VIDA Report and the continuing difficulty that women have being taken seriously in the writing business, despite the fact that we pretty much run it behind the scenes.
Helen Dunmore commented on the way in which women tend to be self-effacing, whereas men will often trumpet their success with far less reason to do so. She’s right, but it is not entirely our fault. It is a defense mechanism. Because if women do stand up and promote themselves, they immediately get jumped on for being uppity, for over-selling themselves, and of course for not being pretty enough. The way to avoid that is to play down whatever success you have had, and make out that you think you didn’t really deserve it.
Helen also commented that she felt the UK was particularly bad at kicking down anyone who had the cheek to appear to have some ambition. Given my experience of Australia, California and Finland, I suspect she’s probably right. But that’s about far more than sexism, and anyway sexism is pretty universal. Many of the magazines surveyed in the VIDA report come from North America, and one is French.
Selma Dabbagh had an interesting angle on the issue. Her day job (which she still does) is that of a human rights lawyer. She said that she found the legal profession less sexist than publishing, because in law there were clearer metrics for success. In law you get measured by what cases you win, and by which clients want your services. In theory writers are measured by success in sales and awards, but we all know that both of those things are critically dependent on how much effort your publisher puts behind your book. In our field we know that publishers put more resources behind male authors, and bookstores are more likely to stock and promote books by male authors (except in certain categories deemed more feminine) because they believe that those books are more likely to sell. I’m sure lady lawyers will now be rushing to say that its not that easy for them, but I’d like you to hold onto the idea of how subjective success in writing can be.
One of the more interesting takes I have seen on the VIDA data is this one in the New Republic, written by one of their senior editors, Ruth Franklin. New Republic is one of the magazines reported on by VIDA, so they have a stake in the debate. What Franklin did was take a selection of publishing houses and count how many books by men and by women they published. While some came close to parity, many, including what she described as “elite literary houses” published books in pretty much the same gender ratio as the reviews reported by VIDA, or worse.
The VIDA numbers, if you remember, were only for literary review magazines. They exhibit a range of female content from low to very low. VIDA doesn’t give an overall figure, but Bidisha said the accepted ceiling for women was around 22%. The figures that LadyBusiness reported for SF&F reviews were much better: at 42% female. Of course if you break down by gender you find that men are only reviewing 25% female authors, and the VIDA figures show that the literary review magazines have a low proportion of female reviewers. But the fact remains that if you want reviews of women SF&F authors then they are not too hard to find in the usual outlets for such things. You won’t find them in literary magazines, but you won’t find reviews of male SF&F writers there either.
I’ve joked before about “literary” fiction being a genre for stories about middle-aged male academics who have mid-life crises, but the real problem with “literary” as a category is the idea that “literary” means “good”. That would be fine if people really meant it, but we know all too well that certain types of fiction tend to get excluded because they are deemed “not good” by definition. And if one of the ways in which you define “good” fiction is “fiction by men, about men”, well, I’m sure you can see the positive feedback loop at work here.
So I think that perhaps one of the reasons the VIDA numbers are so bad is that they focus to closely on an area of fiction that is already tending to exclude women. If we want the numbers to get better, one very simple thing we can do is to try to judge each book on the quality of its writing, not screen whole categories of books out because they are “genre” or “not realistic” or “women’s writing”.
Of course the situation of men not wanting to read books by women is still bad. But the overall situation is not as bad as the VIDA numbers make out, provided that we stop being shy and diffident, but instead demand that our books not be excluded because they are not “literary”.
I should make one more comment about the event before I finish. There was a book room, and I headed off there after the panel because I wanted a signed copy of Bea’s book, Petite Mort. (She’s a friend, and I want to get her on Ujima sometime soon.) Stella, sadly, had to rush back to London. However, having secured a lift to the station, she dashed into the book room and quickly signed every book of hers that she could see there. She took them out of the hands of people in the queue and personalized them. And she recognized me from my Twitter avatar, so she didn’t even need to ask for a name. That’s a superb example of an author working her fan base. I was impressed.
So, congratulations to Sian Norris and her team. It was an excellent event, and one I would love to see repeated next year. Any chance of a panel on feminist SF, Sian? We’ve got Sarah Le Fanu on our doorstep, and I can probably lure Farah Mendlesohn along if you give her enough warning.