The write stuff: Why women’s literature deserves better

Laura Marney experienced trouble with how her books were marketed
Laura Marney experienced trouble with how her books were marketed
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It’s time women’s writing was taken seriously and not simply corralled into crime or packaged as chick-lit, hears Dani Garavelli

WHEN author Laura Marney saw the cover of her first book, No Wonder I Take a Drink, a story about an incomer’s experience in a Highland village, she was disappointed. “It had a girl doing a handstand in a park – you could almost see her pants,” she says. It wasn’t until she saw the cover to her second book, Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby, which showed a woman caught up in her own clothing, however, that she realised something was seriously awry. “The idea was this woman was so ditzy she couldn’t get her own top off. I thought it was pretty offensive, the way the woman’s face was covered but her body was exposed, and the book wasn’t about being ditzy.”

Denise Mina is one of Scotland's successful female authors

Denise Mina is one of Scotland's successful female authors

Marney complained to her publishers and they agreed to change it, but not before they’d told her she’d be pegged as “difficult”. The final straw came when the cover of her fourth book – My Best Friend Has Issues – was as downmarket and sexualised as the first – a pair of legs in a swimming pool with arm bands round the ankles.

Now Marney, who teaches creative writing at Glasgow University, has a new publisher and all her books are being reissued with covers that reflect their content. But her experience made her ask why women writers find it so difficult to get taken seriously. Why, when statistics show women read more than men, form the backbone of book clubs and are more literate at every stage in their lives, do books by men hog the limelight?

Although Glasgow has spawned a generation of successful female writers – from Denise Mina to Louise Welch – women seem increasingly to be corralled into crime or packaged as chick-lit; and several times over the past few years, they have been dismissed as purveyors of what their critics describe as “dull, domestic fare”.

Later this week, Marney and others from the Scottish literary scene will look at the challenges facing female authors at an event at the Aye Write! festival and ask why, more than 30 years after feminist publisher Virago’s heyday, women writers are still treated with less respect than their male counterparts.

Commercially, women’s writing would seem to be in rude health. According to Nielsen BookScan, of the 100 bestselling books published since 1998, 50 per cent were by women. But when it comes to reviews in publications such as the London Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement, women struggle to gain a foothold. Last year, a survey found the LRB had reviewed 68 books by women and 195 by men in 2010, with 78 per cent of the reviews written by men. Seventy-five per cent of the books reviewed in the TLS were written by men, with 72 per cent of its reviewers men.

A similar story is told by looking at the winners of the major prizes. Fifteen out of 46 of the Booker prizes have been won by women, while the shortlist for last year’s Forward poetry prize was all-male.

Many women believe the problem starts in schools and universities where the bulk of the titles on reading lists are by men. “When I was starting out, the writers I was inspired by were almost all men,” says Zoe Strachan, author of Ever Fallen in Love. “There was a moment when I realised maybe it wasn’t just men who wrote on interesting subjects such as philosophy, but that I might need to do more seeking out of those books by women.”

Professor Willy Maley, co-founder of Glasgow University’s creative writing course, thinks the discrimination is particularly entrenched in Scotland because of its male-dominated literary lineage which runs from Walter Scott to Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. “It’s a gendered landscape,” he says. “And I think the same snobbery that applies to literary notions of popular fiction have worked against many prominent and gifted writers, for example Dorothy Dunnett. It’s easier for women writers to make a home in established genres than to break into the literary fiction niche.”

That was certainly the experience of police officer-turned-author Karen Campbell. She wrote three novels which, while centring on uniformed officers, were more explorations of the themes of identity and power than detective novels, yet she found she couldn’t escape the “crime-writer” label. Her latest novel, to be published by Bloomsbury, is about a Somali refugee living in Glasgow. Like We Need to Talk About Kevin author Lionel Shriver, who once said “trussing up my novels as sweet, girly and soft is like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress”, Campbell worries that labelling female books short-changes both author and reader.

She says: “I think maybe there are expectations of women writers, they almost have to have a certain place they are put in, where men seem much freer to write about anything.”

Claire Squires, professor of publishing studies at the University of Stirling, points out that while there are women right at the top of major publishing companies such as Random House, their decisions are shaped by society and the economic climate. “Publishers have to work by a set of codes and conventions – they need covers to signal and communicate messages to a potential readership,” she says. “Having said that I do think they sometimes make decisions which are unsophisticated.”

Perhaps the problems which beset women writers aren’t caused by individuals or institutions, but by deeply-entrenched cultural preconceptions as to what constitutes “important” literature. For years, women writers have been criticised for confining themselves to the domestic, while men deal with big issues such as war. Last year, VS Naipal raised feminist hackles when he criticised female writers’ “sentimentality”, adding: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” And Muriel Gray once criticised “the volume of thinly-disguised autobiographical writing on motherhood and boyfriend troubles”, she had encountered. Yet when Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom about suburban ennui was published, it had praise heaped upon it.

“It’s insane to criticise a book for being domestic,” says Strachan. “What’s Madame Bovary but a book about a woman who’s bored with her life? Even the likes of Alan Hollinghurst’s books deal with the domestic, but because they are about a man or perhaps the characters are of a certain class or interacting with people of a certain class they seem to be elevated in a way that a similar book by a woman with female characters wouldn’t be.”

Because surveys have shown women read authors of either gender where men are more likely to read male authors, many women writers adopt gender-neutral names to encourage a wider readership. But when author Denise Mina was starting out, she declined requests to do so because she believed it was important for women authors to make themselves visible. “The most common thing that male newspaper editors and critics say to me is, ‘My wife loves your books.’ But what do you do to challenge that? It’s so deep-rooted and complex. It’s not the fault of writers or publishers, it’s a culture-wide prejudice.”

It was the perception that women authors were struggling to gain critical recognition that inspired the women-only Orange Prize. Derided by some on the grounds it ghettoised women’s writing, it is nonetheless beginning to change the way women’s literature is viewed. “I think the Orange prize is necessary in the wider context of women’s position in society as a whole,” says Strachan.

“On the other hand, I don’t look at the shortlist and say, ‘Here’s a book by a woman.’ I think ‘Here’s a book I haven’t read and might like.’ You encourage reading when you bring books to the attention of a wider audience and that’s always a good thing.”

What’s Wrong With Women’s Writing? is at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, on Sunday, March 11 at 3.30pm-5pm.