Sexism & Wonderbras: What In The World Of Books Have They In Common?

Posted at 11:40am on 13th November 2009

"Publishing takes men more seriously than women; female writing is regarded as second tier,” Lionel Shriver says in a Daily Telegraph article on sexism in the world of books.

Ms Shriver, born Margaret Ann Shriver, is an American journalist, and author of the acclaimed novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin. Having disliked her female name and changed it to a masculine one at the age of fifteen, one wonders whether she knew something that the rest of we women authors didn’t? Do you suppose, in the light of her statement above, that she ever wonders whether her book would have won a prestigious prize had she been writing as Margaret Ann?

Of course, she is not the first. George Eliot, author of the popular mid-nineteenth century novel, Adam Bede, lived a notorious private life in Victorian times, as Mary Anne Evans. The common-law ‘wife’ of an already married man, George Lewis, she and he agreed to an open marriage and, in addition to the three children she had with him, Mary Anne had several others. It appears that the scandal did nothing to stem her literary prowess but, fearful of not being taken seriously, or worse, being dubbed a ‘silly lady novelist’, she wrote under her male pen-name.


In the 20th and 21st Century, of course, we have the reverse: the phenomenon of men aspiring to be taken as lady novelists, among them: Dorothea Nile (Michael Avallone), Caroline Farr (Richard Wilkes-Hunter) and, of course, my old friend Jessica Stirling (Hugh Rae). But looking at the Publishers’ Weekly Top Ten list of books for 2009 – every one of which has been written by a male author – you just wonder whether they might have shot themselves in the foot? I suppose it depends on whether they’re writing to be on a top ten list, or to be bought and read?

Novelist, Kathy Lette, had this to say to the Independent on Sunday, “Apparently dinosaurs still roam the earth. They're all at Publishers Weekly. This list proves that the only support women authors get is from our Wonderbras. As women make up 90 per cent of the fiction-buying public, perhaps we should make a point and girl-cott male authors until our work is given the same critical acclaim and public backing."

Excuse me? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? Isn’t the ‘90% of the fiction buying public’ actually giving women authors ‘critical acclaim and public backing’ by sheer dint of numbers and purchase-power? I mean, how many of them are buying and reading these so called ‘big books of the year’? I can’t say that I’ve read any of this year’s list! Have you?


“There is a default assumption that men are the heavy hitters,” Ms Shriver says.

Really? What, precisely, does that mean: heavy hitters? And if, as I suspect, it means writing in an erudite, obscure literary style, is that what being published is all about? Is this what the reading public wants; what the market wants; what bookshops can sell?


Who reads this stuff, that's what I want to know? And who cares whether the author is male or female? Looking at my personal library, I have to confess that I possess few books written by modern men; but well-thumbed copies of Charles Dickens', A.J. Cronin's, and R.F. Delderfield's books litter my book shelves. And, yes, in amongst the Joanna Trollope aga sagas and novels of Elizabeth Buchan, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Clare Chambers, Pat Barker, and Jodie Picoult – all of which I devour – there are a few of John Grisham’s and a Nicholas Evans as well.

Am I sexist? I don’t think so. Am I about to burn my Wonderbra? Definitely not! At least, not yet. I read - and write - for pleasure. How about you?

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