By Natalie Di Paola
When it comes to women having their novels edited, published and then circulated in the market, it is often thought that they receive the raw end of the deal. But is this all changing in the “age of feminism”?
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every male reader is in want of a novel with a male protagonist. Or at least it was in the 1980s and 1990s. And at the 2015 Melbourne Writers Festival, authors Danielle Binks, Sally Rippin and Myke Bartlett agreed that it was still the case, with boys wanting to read about boys and publishers being hesitant to publish novels about “strong” female characters.
Past experiences by female authors, such as Catherine Nichols, have also indicated that females in general struggle to obtain publishing contracts. And this is often made easier if they work under a male pseudonym.
But is this still the case in 2018? Benython Oldfield, Director and Agent at Zeitgeist Media Group, doesn’t believe so.
“From my point of view, the industry is looking for female-driven stories opposed to male-driven stories,” he says.
“I will say that it’s very hard for a man to write a female character now. Because the world’s shifted and it seems ingenuous for a male to be writing a female character. In fact, I have a really interesting book recently we couldn’t get published that was about a woman who has this immense physical strength and she’d go out on the streets and fight like a vigilante who tried to kill blokes who were acting badly and had bad attitudes. But, because that book was written by a man, the publishers just went, “No, we can’t do it”. If that book was written by a woman, I think it would have had a lot of people interested.”
Benython has been in the industry for ten years, and attributes this shift to the fact that majority of fiction readers are women.
He says, “the problem is, blokes don’t really read. At all. I would say the percentage of books that are bought in Australia would be 20% men and 80% women. I mean if you think about it you don’t really hear about male book clubs or that kind of thing.”
When choosing novels, he looks for characters that are “mentally strong” and “likeable” because, “I’m gonna have to spend 20 hours with them. So why would I hang out with someone that’s an asshole?”
What a publisher deems “likeable” or a “good” representation of lead female characters can be a double-edged sword.
For Stephanie Bishop, author of the Other Side of the World, it meant rejection of her novel multiple times.
“So, I did find people would turn it down on the basis of her being a cold, unlikeable character and one of the publishers told me that they would reconsider, quote on quote, if I “warmed her up a bit”,” she says.
“Often there will be a kind of demand for female characters to behave in a certain way, unless that publisher is kind of open to the kind of controversy that that might incite, which my publisher was…they took it on and said, “because so many people are going to hate this character.””
On the other hand, Mette Jakobson, author of the Vanishing Act, encountered no problems or criticisms of her female lead character.
She admits that, “I’ve just had such a smooth ride, I’ve got no war scars…My publishing company…they are very extremely progressive…I think I’ve been very lucky with them.”
In fact, Books+Publishing conducted a survey on sexual harassment within the industry in December 2017. Of the 213 responses received (from men and women), only 8.9% of authors experienced sexual harassment. The staff most commonly harassed were in editorial (25%), marketing and/or publicity (17.9%) and booksellers (15.2%).
But female authors don’t just face problems in the industry. It is when their works are critiqued and nominated for awards that these, what Stephanie calls, “unconscious biases”, arise again.
She felt this when a “very strange” review of her book and another female author came out and it interpreted their novels based on gender, “and on the basis of the gendered cover and on the basis of the gendered readership.”
They wrote back and criticised the publication, with the other author citing how many times she’d been asked about her appearance and other gendered questions “which set the way for which her work was interpreted”.
Generally, men’s works are reviewed more than those by women. The Stella count aims to raise awareness about this in Australia by collecting the number of reviews and who they were written by based on gender.
The 2016 count found that, in seven of the twelve publications surveyed, male coverage tended to be favoured. However, across all publications that year they found that 52% of book reviews were written by women.
Meanwhile the 2016 Vida count, which measures gender parity and reviews across America, found that 11 of 23 publications surveyed had the same amount or more of female and male writers of reviews. However, this meant a 10% decrease from 58% in 2015 across all publications.
Stephanie believes that, “It’s the men that have the problem with reading women’s work. It’s not that women have a problem with writing it, it’s that they can’t get a publisher… So, I do think that actually it needs to be some large-scale project of re-educating the male readers from a very young age.”
Benython recalls some of Zeitgeist Media Group’s writers getting “absolutely hammered by the Herald”, but admits that, “research shows…men are reviewed more, but it’s sort of a social thing because if you look at the top 10, at the people who are making the money, the 10 bestsellers in Australia, it’s not Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan and those guys. It’s Liane Moriarty, Jane Harper’s the Dry...The men are getting exposed, but they’re not actually getting the sales.”
And it appears they’re not getting the awards either. Mette, who as a judge at the Premier’s Literary Awards, revealed that at least half the novels nominated were by female authors.
Also, the 2017 Miles Franklin award was awarded to Josephine Wilson, the fifth female to win the award since 2011. The Stella Prize, which is awarded only to female authors, was introduced in 2013 because not enough female authors were winning the Miles Franklin awards.
Benython, Stephanie and Mette are all in agreement that it was beneficial to getting more female authors recognised.
However, Stephanie adds that a point her husband, who is a critic, raises is that men are also being disadvantaged. This is because they are only eligible for the Miles Franklin award, which can only be about Australian life.
“So, if you’re a male author and you’re writing to an international theme, of international experience, there is no prize that you are eligible for. So, while I think it’s a really great thing for women, there are kind of problems all over the place in terms of how one’s work can be given the recognition it deserves,” she says.