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I don’t want to be a rare successful female writer. I just want to be a successful writer

More often than not, when you pick up a new book in a bookshop, it will be by yet another white man, meaning that white and male will be what the next set of Big Names will look like. How can we break out of this self-reinforcing cycle?

A lone woman enters the Foyles shop on Charing Cross Road, London, in 1958. Photo: Getty
A lone woman enters the Foyles shop on Charing Cross Road, London, in 1958. Photo: Getty

I grew up in bookshops.

One specific bookshop, really – The Sevenoaks Bookshop, still remarkably one of the few independents left. I remember the friendly tolerance of the staff with affection, but mainly I’m afraid I just remember the atmosphere of the place, how content I was  wandering up and down the shelves, or sitting on a library stool, almost invisible behind the big square display table as I tried to work out how to spend my pocket money. Michelle Magorian. Diana Wynne Jones. Dodie Smith. Robert Westall. Anything, frankly, with unicorns on the cover. I can’t actually have been in there for hours at a time, can I? Or maybe I was. Time moved slowly there – not dragging, but with leisurely, unfretted dignity. I went to the bookshop every week. I know I did, because my school worked out that books were the thing I cared about most in the world, while I did not particularly care about maths. And so they made me a little card that I had to present to the maths teacher every day to be ticked. If I did not get a tick representing an acceptable standard of mathematic achievement every day – if I scored lower than five ticks — I was not allowed to buy a book that week. In retrospect I’m grudgingly impressed by their commitment to making me learn, but I still resent the additional anxiety they piled on an already stressy kid.

I feel it’s obligatory to acknowledge here, I know I was very lucky in multiple ways to have the luxury of being desolate when I had to go a week without a new book to call my own. But at the time, I just hated that school was intruding into the areas of my life that were supposed to be mine. School was stressful and claustrophobic, school was constant bracing myself for digs at my clumsiness and forgetfulness, my lack of athleticism,  my daydreaming and dreadful handwriting and messy hair. But in the bookshop I was safe. I was good enough.

And with the books I took home, with a blue shawl that could be a cloak and a broken garden cane that could be a magical staff, I was more than that. I was an adventurer. I was the first female Knight of the Round Table. I could fly.

But really, I knew, I was going to be a writer. I was going to write about people who had to run away from bad things to try to be safe. I was going to write about other worlds; I was going to write about Mars. I was going to go back to the bookshop and see my books, there with all the others.

And then I grew up and it all came true. My first book was published and suddenly the experience of entering a bookshop changed, it was no longer so peaceful. For a long time it was just the purely self-centred anxiety of many a writer: do they stock my book? Where is it displayed? If it’s not here, is that bad? But in time I mostly got over that.

But I started to notice something else. I’d started counting.

I think it was 2007. There was a table in a Waterstones, loaded with a particular male crime writer’s favourite crime novels. I glanced at it across the shop. And suddenly I thought “I bet there are no books by women on that table.” So I went over and counted.

I was wrong. There was one. One book out of twenty.

This went from being something I did occasionally to something I’m now incapable of not doing. I count instantly, at a glance, even when I try not to, and the results always, always make my heart sink.

The Staff Picks display at the Waterstones by Charing Cross station. There’s a handful of women. Shame they’re all dead.

The science fiction and fantasy (SFF) table in Foyles. Oh, hi there, Ursula LeGuin. You look lonely.

I started talking to the staff about it. I found this perhaps disproportionately difficult (the stressy thing did not, sadly, go away when I reached adulthood). The staff were polite and sympathetic, and sometimes promised to look into it. But nothing ever changed. I’d go back, and count again, and nothing got better.

I started talking about it, tentatively, online. Couldn’t bring myself to write a full-length piece until now, but I’d comment on other people’s pieces on gender in publishing. The bookshops blamed the publishers and the publishers blamed the bookshops, and nothing got better.

So I tried guerrilla tactics – when I couldn’t face having the conversation again, I conducted a sneak raid of the shelves, and I loaded an SFF table in with Tricia Sullivan, NK Jemisin, and because I am not a saint, me. Foyles, I don’t know if you ever noticed or wondered who did that, but now you know. There were other female writers I wanted to use, Elizabeth Bear, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Roz Kaveney — but I couldn’t because they weren’t in the shop at all.

Now I know booksellers are often awesome people who, like me, care about books more than anything else. I have several as friends. They’re people whose schools would probably have done the maths-for-books thing to them if they’d thought of it. Many are doing what they can on this issue with such power as they have. I don’t think there’s any grand, mustachio-twirling conspiracy to keep women down. But that’s just it, there doesn’t have to be. If you pick books from what you see around you and what you’ve grown up with and the names you see in the trade press, none of which requires any sort of malice, the monoculture persists.

People say it’s just SFF, but it isn’t. It’s literary fiction, it’s non-fiction, it’s everywhere that collections of books are assessed and displayed. The one exception might be romance, and female writers pay for their prominence there with the stigma that attends their entire genre. And it’s not just bookshops, now, where I count. I used to love the book review section of the newspapers, too. One time last year, I made the count and ended up in tears because there were eighteen reviews of books by men and two of books by women. One of those women was reviewed negatively. The other was the historian Lucy Worsley and she was referred to as “twinkle-toed”.

So now I don’t read the reviews sections any more.

And since October or so, I haven’t been going into bookshops. It’s not a boycott, really, I just don’t want to get upset. I’ve felt too tired to have the conversations or to mount a stealth promotion of women writers. I’ve been getting my new books on my Kobo this winter, working through the rainy day supply of unread volumes on my shelves. It’s not supposed to be a permanent thing. Maybe, I’ve been thinking, when spring comes around and the winter blues subside, I’ll have sufficient stores of resiliency that I’ll be okay. In spring perhaps I’ll be able to go into a bookshop and though women’s writing will still be absent or tucked away in the background where you have to look for it, it will only sting for a moment. It won’t ruin the afternoon.

But it’s not spring yet, and what has hurt most is that the sense of refuge, the feeling of belonging I remember from childhood was always a lie. I had never been welcome in the bookshop the way I thought I was. I was good enough to hand over my pocket money (and it is women who make up the great majority of fiction readers) but the shelves, the displays, they weren’t territory I was ever meant for. At best, with immense, disproportionate luck and effort and support, I might, at the expense of other female writers and of writers of colour, achieve the most grudging, tenuous toehold. And meanwhile when people walk into bookshops, when they look at review columns, they’ll receive the impression that women and non-white writers barely exist, and certainly aren’t writing at a standard to be considered alongside the greats, the Big Names. And when they pick a new book by a new writer to take home and talk to their friends about, that book will be by yet another white man, and so white and male will be what the next set of Big Names will look like, and round and round we’ll go.

(And please understand that even if all my books hit the bestseller charts and sat smugly on every display table for the rest of time – I don’t want to be a rare successful female writer; I just want to be a successful writer. I don’t want to be the only female Knight of the Round Table any more, I want the fucking table to practise panel parity.)

For a long time, I felt as if I was the only one noticing this. But now I know that isn’t true. I’ve seen other women writing about it online for a while, I’ve seen photos of typical white male-dominated displays and rare exceptional balanced ones. Recently the issue has received a sudden burst of attention. This was ignited by yet another eyewatering outburst of racism and sexism from a particular faction at what I think can now reasonably be called the “troubled” Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. (I mean, one of these guys called Mary Robinette Kowal an “unperson”. Really.)

Juliet E McKenna explained why it matters not to dismiss these attitudes as just the ravings of cranky dinosaurs far away; because you can see those same attitudes still silently but lethally present … in the bookshop.

With the upcoming fourth season of A Game of Thrones about to hit TV screens, you will soon see ‘If you like reading GRR Martin, why not try these authors?’ displays going up in bookshops. I will give a book of mine, of their choice, to the first person who can send me a photo of such a display that isn’t entirely composed of male authors. Because I’ve yet to see one. I have challenged staff in bookshops about this, to be told ‘women don’t write epic fantasy’ Ahem, with 15 novels published, I beg to differ. And we read it too.

But that’s not what the onlooker sees in the media, in reviews, in the supposedly book-trade-professional articles in The Guardian which repeatedly discuss epic fantasy without ever once mentioning a female author. That onlooker who’s working in a bookshop and making key decisions about what’s for sale, sees a male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay. So that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.

Read the whole thing, because there are many more important points there than this one quote captures, notably, she explains her discovery that as a bookseller at the now defunct Ottakar’s herself, she discovered only when she began going to conventions how many female horror writers she was unknowingly excluding from her shelves.

Foz Meadows then drew attention to a particularly egregious example of McKenna’s point:

In March 2012, while browsing in my then-local Waterstones in St Andrews, Scotland, I encountered a laminated booklet in the SFF section – produced entirely by Waterstones – that listed various recommended authors. I was so appalled by the almost total lack of women and POC that I photographed it as evidence. [...] So, to be clear: of the one hundred and thirteen authors listed in the genre-specific sections, there are a grand total of nine women and, as far as I can tell, zero POC. [...] And, of course, as Juliet McKenna predicted, the authors recommended for fans of George R. R. Martin? All men.

Emma Newman challenged Waterstones to commit to diversity and gender parity.

“I want Waterstones to publicly commit to promoting male and female writers equally in all promotional materials written from now on. I don’t want all of them to be white. I want national newspapers and magazines and journals and major reviewing outlets to commit to reviewing male and female writers equally. I want libraries to commit to compiling recommendation lists with equal male and female representation. (I know that a friend of mine in America who is a librarian says this is a core policy of theirs. It should be the same everywhere.)”

And then the story reached the Guardian’s book blog, by Alison Flood.

And Cara Murphy tweeted this.

And I replied:

It’s not much compared to what the women above have been doing; it’s a fairly self-pitying tweet (spring will happen eventually, right?) I wasn’t expecting any response. I’ve tweeted things like that before and haven’t had one. But Foyles talked back.

And we had a conversation:

 

 

That was good news, but I still didn’t feel that optimistic:

But Foyles’ response was encouraging:

I was nervous. What if they didn’t get back to me with the figures? What if they did and they didn’t say what I thought they would? Maybe despite my school’s efforts with the little ticky card, I’d never learned maths right and men and women were totally equal in the bookshop and I was making a fuss about nothing and wouldn’t that be embarrassing.

No, I thought. No, it would be wonderful.

That isn’t what happened, but this did.

So I was delighted. And now we’ll see. I’m sure the person tweeting for Foyles was completely sincere, but how responsive those buyers and managers will be, how soon and how decisively that translates into visible change – we’ll have to wait to find out. But just to see this taken seriously gives me hope that maybe we won’t be waiting forever.

Waterstones has said nothing yet. But letters are being written, people are talking and they’re getting louder and louder. I think there might be a different feeling in the air. Maybe the big bookshop chains will feel it too. Maybe they really will listen. Maybe things will be different this time.

I hope so. I can’t tell you how much I hope so.

I want to go back to the bookshop.