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Votes for women, books about women?

A landmark anniversary passed this week in the UK, marking 100 years since women were granted the long overdue vote. In my first novel, The Poet’s Wife, Luisa meets with other women to discuss women’s suffrage and proudly casts her vote when Spain becomes a Republic in 1933. In my second novel, The Girl and the Sunbird, Iris returns to England  in 1904 from British East Africa from an enormous trauma and throws herself into women’s suffrage in Durham. It’s  a subject close to my heart, as my writing testifies.

With the passing of such a momentous anniversary, I thought I’d take pause for thought and cast an eye on female writers and how they stand up against their male counterparts. The fact that male writers earn more, are reviewed more, are more likely to submit manuscripts and win more literary prizes has been fairly well documented. And over the years, this gap has closed somewhat with a number of female poet laureates, and women winning the Carnegie, Forward and Costa prizes. But there is a curious phenomenon that is less well known, and to discover this we need to look at the protagonists in novels of prize-winning authors of both genders: they are overwhelming male.

But why is this? Why are books written about male protagonists doing better and winning more prizes than novels centred around women? Novelist Nicola Griffith did extensive research into the topic a couple of years ago and the data collected was striking: women writers consistently write about both male and female characters, whereas 39 out of 48 books that won prizes (including the Pulitzer, the Man Booker Prize and the Newbery Medal) were written exclusively about men. Griffith looked at the Booker winners between 2000 and 2014 and found that 12 of the 15 winners had a male protagonist. And it didn’t stop there: the more she looked across all the literary awards, she found exactly the same thing, concluding that ‘the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women’.

Novelist Catherine Nicholls did her own research, in a different vein. She sent out a partial manuscript of her novel to 50 agents (of both genders) and was asked to send in the whole of it to two agents. But when she sent it out to 50 agents disguised as ‘George’, 17 of the 50 called in the whole manuscript. The feedback she received was even more telling, with George’s writing being praised for being ‘exciting’ and ‘clever’, whilst Catherine had to content herself on her ‘beautiful writing.’ This draws deeply into the very syntax of the gender biases of our language and shows that yes, women may have the vote, but in which areas are we still paying lip service to deeper gender imbalances?

The fact that women are more likely to study literature, we read far more books and attend more writing courses means that we should be leagues ahead on prize shortlists and bestseller charts, surely? And yet, this is very far from the reality. Part of the problem, says Debbie Taylor (founder of the fabulous Mslexia Magazine, created to redress the gender imbalance in writing) is that extensive research has uncovered the fact that women read books penned by both genders, whereas the same cannot be said for men. Goodreads carried out a survey in 2016 whereby 40,000 people were questioned on their reading habits. The results amongst men? A whopping 90% of of their top 50 books were by male authors.

As for books being reviewed, no matter which subject was being covered in the books, women’s novel reviews were more likely to contain the words ‘domestic’, ‘love’ and ‘beauty’ and men’s novels more likely to contain words such as ‘theory’ and ‘ideas.’ What has gone wrong? It sounds as though women’s lib never happened and women are still in the kitchen, curlers in their hair and frying pan in hand while her husband marches out of the front door in his suit.

Which isn’t, of course, quite how it is these days. And YET…As we celebrate 100 years of the vote, I’d like anyone reading this – male and female – to challenge men we know and love (and even those we know less well.) Which books are they reading, who are they by and who is the protagonist? And, if it all lines up with the findings above, can we encourage them to step outside their comfort zones?

If you enjoyed reading this blog post, complement it with a review of Writing Motherhood, a reflection on whether the pram still sits firmly in the hallway in the lives of female writers; and why we should all read historical fiction.

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