Sexism on the march: the latest blather on women in publishing

I read a Will Self article on the death of the literary novel today. I don’t usually read Self except to play the party game (‘Simulacrum’! ‘Hegemony’! ‘Polymorphic!’ BINGO!) and this was more of the usual. But I came across this passage:

The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. (Guardian)

Hmm. Self wants to sneer at non-literary fiction and he picks on Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey. A children’s book and a romance. He could have mentioned The Da Vinci Code, a book as hugely popular, egregiously bad and knockoff-spawning as 50 Shades. Inferno was the second best-selling book of 2013 in the UK: renowned wordsmith Dan Brown has not yet shot his bolt. Or as an example of the doorstop megaseries, surely Game of Thrones is better than Harry Potter, of which the last book was published seven years ago? But Mr Self clearly feels there’s something Dan and George have that Joanne and Erika don’t.

If you want to set up a straw man in opposition to the dizzy heights of literary fiction, you pick on children’s and romance, every time. Two genres dominated by women, as writers and editors and buyers; two genres that are constantly getting it in the neck as objects of sneering.

Think I’m being oversensitive? Yesterday it was announced that HarperCollins were acquiring Harlequin from Canadian owners Torstar for half a billion dollars. Harlequin is a gigantic player in the romance market, which is estimated to be worth $1.4billion per annum. Here is how the (male) business news editor of the Toronto Globe and Mail responded to the news of a half-billion dollar acquisition of a Canadian company by an American publisher.


Yes, the priority for the business news editor of the newspaper based in the same city as Harlequin HQ is definitely to find the joke. And he did, filing the following piece:

The tension in the room was palpable. The fan blades twirled to keep the sweat from trickling off their bodies. They’d done similar things with other people, of course, but it was never like this. This was scintillating, and they ached just from the anticipation.

Oh, yes, the bankers groaned, in their throaty way.

Yes, there, the lawyers moaned, passion mounting as they pointed to where to sign the deal.

Etc. Hilarious. And comparable to the way he presented acquisition of Pixar by Disney as a squeaky voiced Mickey Mouse parody oh no wait that didn’t happen. (Click here for an excellent summary of how bad the reporting of this huge publishing event has been.)

Recently author Jonathan Emmett got himself in The Times explaining how children’s publishing was failing boys because it was dominated by women. It’s paywalled but there’s a summary here.

he believes that “children’s books tended not to contain the elements many boys were attracted to, such as battling pirate ships and technical details about spaceships,” adding that research shows that the majority of children’s books in newspapers, including The Times, were by women.


“… there is a literacy gap – boys are underachieving, boys do not like books as much as girls. I am arguing that this is because the industry is dominated by female gatekeepers.”

Ignore statistics about which parents tend to read to their kids, and the female-dominated children’s publishing industry’s efforts to get male reading role models and male reading champions. Ignore the way that the media and society still present reading as nerdy and unmanly. Ignore the fact that you can’t throw a sparkly pink kitten in the Usborne or DK sections without hitting a book about ‘battling pirate ships and technical details about spaceships’. It’s bloody women doing it again, refusing to publish Alex Rider or Young James Bond or Darren Shan or Percy Jackson or Beast Quest or Captain Underpants or any of the other gigantically successful boys’ series that must be a figment of your imagination.

Certainly you should ignore the fact that, if children’s publishing is dominated by women, that may have something to do with men not applying to work in it. I’ve been in children’s publishing for eight years and seen one male CV. But no, it’s actually rampant sexism, according to this post (guess the author’s gender!) on The Bookseller website

Commercial fiction editorial departments in particular—the commercial heart of all trade publishers—are almost wholly staffed by women. …

If we have stopped being good at publishing for men, perhaps one of the reasons is that even in those companies that do have male commercial fiction editors, it isn’t easy—in these zealously group-think days—for them to get buy in for fiction that cannot fit the prevailing culture in the office. I have sat in publishing meetings where the room was happily discussing the latest sex and shopping novels before moving on to some male editor’s action thriller: the drop in temperature was perceptible.

Of course, a good professional is in theory capable of evaluating all sorts of fiction, but just how enthusiastic can female colleagues get about strongly masculine subjects?

That was posted on 2 May this year and not, as you may think, 1981. The author concludes that, “men, as a minority, [are] at a structural disadvantage.”

Just read that sentence again.

“men, as a minority, [are] at a structural disadvantage.”


In what feels increasingly like an atmosphere of seething contempt and resentment for women in publishing, for women’s genres, for women authors, it is really important not to develop a bunker mentality. I’m as guilty as anyone of ranting about what ‘men’ say in response to this sort of thing, and that is deeply stupid. My life as editor, writer and person is full of male colleagues, authors, librarians, teachers, friends and readers who have no time for the misogynists and inadequate ego-strokers, and are quite ready to smack them down.

We must not let the haters in any area set the tone of the debate, not let them overshadow the very many male authors and publishers and journos and buyers who don’t feel compelled to scapegoat women or mock women-dominated genres. And we must not lose sight of what the real problems are.

The problem of boys’ reading is a problem of children’s reading, and it is about library closures and economic conditions and austerity measures putting books out of more people’s reach; about school systems that don’t give time to reading whole books and suck the joy out of reading in favour of standardised testing; about insufficient staff to support reading. For boys in particular, it is about social attitudes (we need more male nursery staff and primary school teachers, and it’s not women’s fault they’re not there), and possibly developmental differences that need staff and time and money to support them, things the funding-strapped education system aren’t providing.

The real problem of representation in publishing is about class and race, as the derisory salaries at junior/middle levels, the reliance on unpaid internships and the concentration of work in incredibly expensive places exclude people who don’t have financial family support. Sexism both ways is a relatively small issue compared to the overwhelming upper/middle class whiteness, in UK publishing at least.

The problem of there just not being enough good publishing for men is…uh…


Looks much like 50% to me, remind me what the problem was again?

So I’m mostly posting this to remind myself: Keep your eye on the ball. Defensive sexism isn’t the answer to aggressive sexism. Ignoring people who care and listen and think is always a mistake, and so is judging people by anything except their words and deeds. I really don’t want to be pushing away supportive, listening, non-stupid men at this time. We have enough problems with the other kind.

13 replies
  1. joannachambers
    joannachambers says:

    Self was making the same argument on Newsnight. He was saying “blah blah blah.. End of the literary novel… Blah blah blah” but I was hearing “Where are my royalties?” There was also something about readers being too distracted by their devices – breaking off to google things they are reading about etc. – to truly submerge themselves in the text. To me, that was revealing. If I’m absorbed in what I’ m reading there is no way I’ll swipe away to google something. It’s not about the device on which you’re reading. It’s about the book.

    As for boys, a huge reason for not reading is gaming. There’s plenty of articles kicking around about making gaming more accessible for girls. The churlishness about women as gatekeepers is asinine. There is an embarrassment of riches available for boy readers and girl readers alike. And plenty of formula-based gender-focused pap too. My younger boys is currently reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and loving it, just as I did at his age.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      It’s definitely ‘what about my royalties’. Wolf Hall survived just fine and so has The Kite Runner.

      Boys reading is a topic that drives me nuts and I could go on about it for weeks, suffice to say that ‘women editors’ really is not the issue. Although, brilliantly, an author I’m editing *right now* weighed in on his side. I am going to get him by the dangling participles.

  2. coaxialcreature
    coaxialcreature says:

    Thank you! I’m kinda struggling with this right now. What I want is a certain genre, specific types of characters, and I’m finding them written mostly by white men, and when they are written by women? White women. Exaggeration, but it’s hard to find the kind of diversity I’d like.

    When I found out Transformers: Windblade (sentient robots are the types of characters I’m looking for) was written /and/ drawn by women, and starred a female Cybertornian? I was thrilled. Because, and this is specific to comics, it’s /hard/ to find a mainstream – even if not DC/Marvel – comic written by /and/ drawn by women. And it’s sad that this combination excited me so much, but it did.

    I also don’t think this is a UK issue. I think there’s a lot of privilege in American publishing, too, and while I can’t speak to European publishing as much, I wouldn’t be surprised.

    I was just mentioning to someone that, hey, the Kardashians are all writing novels, and yet good books languish, unpublished or unsold? And how sad is that. It’s all about money: who has it, and who can make it for the publishers.

    So, yes, definitely a struggle. A lot of my friends are commenting on this on Booklikes. But the thing is, I still want the content I want. When it comes to licensed titles – Marvel novels, Transformers comics – it gets even more insulated, I think, and you speak to even more privilege. Don’t get me started on tie-in comics for Transformers, when a lot of cartoons are written for boys to sell more toys so female characters aren’t supposed to be as clever or brave as boys so as not to frighten them with the women-folk uprising -_-

    Yup, issues. And yet when the next More Than Meets the Eye, Robots in Disguise, and Transformers cartoon comes out, I’ll be there. The problem? It’s partly me and people like me – but I’m not willing to give up my literary/TV crack. Which leads to guilt.

    Sorry for this rambly post.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      The only thing you can really do is read what you want but also actively seek out the stuff you’d like to see. Diversity of voice and content. They are probably out there in genres you like, and where consumers lead (and demonstrate there’s a market ready to pay money), publishers follow.

  3. Kerrita
    Kerrita says:

    I would like to recommend skim – a slight and lovely little graphic novel
    About a Japanese Canadian queer girl. Written by M. & J. Tomaki. Absolutely lovely! :0)

  4. Jan Wiley
    Jan Wiley says:

    As a reader of many different genre of literature over the years. I can actually state that it is not females that are the gatekeepers on what is published, written, or read. I have tried over twelve years to encourage my daughter 😮 (girl) to get into all types of reading from SF to romance to her homework just to get her to read. She would rather hear it on an audio device. I know one of my favorite authors J. R. R. Tolkien would be turning over in his grave to see what has happen to the young people today. Even though I have had to turn to an e-reader for some of the books I read I still like to go to a library everyonce in a while to find a paper copy of an old favorite. Whether Issac Assimov and Piers Anthony in the area of Sci Fiction/ Fantasy; or Lynsay Sands and Andrew Grey in the area of Romance. I also have found many good up and coming male and female writers on the self publishing websites. (Smashwords, Wattpad). Of which I have many a book / novel (80,000+ words) on these sites as well as on large bookseller websites. So if a male did want to read a specific type of book or write a specific type of story. There is really nothing standing in his way except the ability to read and/or write in his national lanquage.

    • Jan Wiley
      Jan Wiley says:

      Clarification I read books from these websites. I am no Writer. My grammar in any language is terrible.
      Dang my spell checker.

    • littlemousling
      littlemousling says:

      Listening to audiobooks *is* reading. It’s still mentally processing the written word. I wouldn’t look down on your daughter for preferring it–it’s likely she just processes audio better, which could serve her VERY well in the lectures/meetings/presentations of her future.

      I know many voracious readers who primarily read via audiobooks, because that’s just how their brains work. For me, audiobooks are painfully slow, but for them, it’s the best possible “format” of a book. Nothing superior about either–it depends on the person doing the reading.


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