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Testing if publishing is sexist

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sexism in publishingA male pseudonym resulted in a better response from literary agents.

Author Catherine Nichols was puzzled by the muted response she’d received when sending her manuscript to literary agents, so she decided to run a test.

She decided to send the same manuscript out under a male pseudonym, just to see if it made any difference.

In a post for Jezebel with the title ‘Homme de Plume: What I Learned Sending My Novel Out Under a Male Name’ Nichols revealed that as Catherine she had two requests for her manuscript.

As George, she had seventeen. Yes that’s right, seventeen!

Agents also responded faster.

Somewhat more worryingly, Nichols also received a greater number of supportive, helpful and positive comments when approaching agents under a male pseudonym, the type of comment that had been non-existent following her original pitch.

Nichols said: “Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me.

“George’s work was “clever,” it’s “well-constructed” and “exciting.”

No one mentioned his sentences being ‘lyrical’ or whether his main characters were ‘feisty’.

“A few people sent deeply generous and thoughtful critiques, which made me both grateful and queasy for my dishonesty.”

Now, you could argue that what Nichols did was dishonest. Or that this is all down to chance – that the first batch of agents who received the draft just didn’t like it and the second group did.

But it is hard to argue that case when you see the stark contrast in the numbers of people who had responded requesting a manuscript: 2 vs 17.

It is not only new authors who are speaking out about sexism in the publishing industry.

Last month the much acclaimed author Joanne Harris, who has sold millions of copies of her books worldwide, drew attention to sexism in publishing with ten tweets.

Harris tweeted “Today’s #TenTweets are examples of how sexist the book world can be. All from my own experience.”

As published in The Telegraph, Harris’s tweets included the following:

‘In spite of my Cambridge degree and academic background, I am still regularly referred to as “Yorkshire lass Joanne Harris”.’

‘Recently I was told by a man at an academic party that “he never read books by women.” Two of his friends immediately agreed.’

‘Last time I toured in the US, every interviewer I met asked me what I thought of Fifty Shades of Grey.’

‘I happened to be travelling with a male writer, who spoke to the same interviewers on the same shows. NO-ONE asked him.’

Sarah Davies-Goff, one of the founders of independent publishing company Tramp Press, discussed the proliferation of sexism in publishing recently in the Irish Times, and said: “My own experiences of sexism in publishing, however, are just a subtle above-water middle finger, belying the massive iceberg beneath. There is a serious gender issue in publishing.”

Davies-Goff went on to say, “… if you’re a person that writes literary fiction and you happen to have a vagina, it’s less probable that your work will be reviewed in a top-tier literary journal or paper.

“If your protagonist does not have a penis, your work is statistically less likely to win major literary awards.

“Awards, reviews and everyday experience tell us, and have been telling us for years, that the viewpoints and experiences of women are less relevant and meaningful to the world than those of men.”

Bias such as that pervading the publishing industry is so ingrained it can not be easily blamed on men alone.

And it is not as simple an issue as saying, ‘Right! We need more women agents!’ because many of the people Nichols contacted were women.

In truth, sexism in publishing is something perpetuated by both women and men.

What is of the utmost importance is that we challenge the notion that books written by women are somehow not of interest to men.

Not all that long ago JK Rowling was advised to use her initials so as not to dissuade boys from wanting to read her books.

Why? Would Rowling really not have seen her enormous success simply as Joanna?

It is incredible that this viewpoint was considered perfectly acceptable in the 1990s. What saddens me is that perhaps nothing has changed.

After all, why should boys not want to read books written by a woman?

And how can we stop this indoctrination from continuing?

It seems to me that literary agents, publishers and literary reviews need to take a long hard look at themselves.

But there are also ways we can all help to instigate change.

The author Joanne Walsh started the #ReadWomen campaign in 2014 as a way of encouraging people to read books by female writers.

Walsh is also asking people to look beyond publishing – at their own book shelves – as a way of challenging the sexist norm.

So here’s what you can do:

Champion female writers by reading books written by women.

Talk about these books with your friends, share reviews on social media, write about them in your blogs.

Ensure you read books by women to your sons, and treat it as the most normal thing in the world.

Mary Ann Evans – aka George Eliot, for those of you who (like me) did not know her real name – must be turning in her grave at how little we have moved on since her day.

But there is always hope that the use of a pseudonym as the road to acceptance and credibility for female writers will eventually seem like a relic from the past – and that the creative works of female authors will be valued just as much as those by their male counterparts. 

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