Vera Fokina in 'Scheherazade'. Music by Rimsky-Korsakov, choreography by Mikhail Fokine, designs by Leon Bakst. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Scheherazade scoops the pot

Women now dominate the literary landscape

Books Columns

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Connoisseurs of the book-world spat will no doubt remember the corking row which enveloped James Marriott this time last year. Mr Marriott, The Times’s versatile deputy books editor, made the fatal mistake of suggesting that the modern fiction publishing scene was incorrigibly weighted in favour of the female writer and was, as they say, “hounded off Twitter.” Happily, Mr Marriott survived this ordeal and continues to file his amusing articles.

Novelists — male novelists — have been complaining about industry bias towards girls for upwards of 50 years

And yet the suspicion remained that Mr M was on to something, for a second and much more forensic column in the Observer reached more or less the same conclusion. Statistics from the past year revealed a mere handful of male debuts. Publishers conceded that launching a male novelist onto the review pages and the Waterstones shelf had become an increasingly tricky job. Mr Marriott sensibly kept his head down, but there was, naturally, another blazing Twitter row.

Veterans greet such disputes with a weary feeling of déjà vu. In fact, novelists — male novelists — have been complaining about industry bias towards girls for upwards of 50 years.

It was Simon Raven, as long ago as 1965, in a Spectator essay entitled “Scheherazade: The Menace of the Sixties” who protested (mock-humorously) about “the volume and success of female competition” and informed his readers that “for every prominent male novelist at present writing in the English tongue there are at least three females on the list.”

And good luck to the three females, you might think. For if there is a gender-imbalance in modern fiction that allows the Mantels, the Cusks and the O’Farrells to enjoy a much softer ride than their male equivalents, then this merely reflects the realities of contemporary publishing at the consumer coalface. Women have always bought and read more novels than men: George Orwell’s experience of working in a bookshop in the 1930s was that women read everything whereas men confined themselves either to “the books it was possible to respect” or detective novels. Why shouldn’t the principal consumer become the principal producer?

But there is more to the far from level playing field of modern fiction publishing than a mere head-count. Over the past couple of decades, as well as continuing to write novels, women have moved seamlessly into “gatekeeper” roles: editing newspaper books pages, commissioning and publishing fiction and consolidating their hold on professional bodies.

To be sure, most of these power-brokers are white and posh, and there are not yet that many Kit de Waals making their presence felt in Bloomsbury (Ms De Waal has funded a writing fellowship aimed at increasing working-class representation in the arts), but all this is progress of a sort.

So, a brisk little feminine conspiracy designed to keep male novelists off the book prize short-lists? No, alas: the problems affecting the male writer these days are far more elemental, if not absolutely zeitgeist-shriven. Think about the best-selling male-authored novels of, say, the 1980s. You couldn’t publish a book like Martin Amis’s Money (1984) in 2021 — there would be an outcry about its (albeit satirical) view of male/female relations; even in 1989 Amis’s London Fields was kept off the Booker shortlist by a feminist cabal.

And if men these days hardly dare to write about women, for fear of the online consequences, then there are whole areas of modern experience that are similarly off-limits: politics (see last month’s column about the lack of Conservative novelists) finance (too complex for the non-specialist) and technology (ditto but worse). What, you might wonder, is left to the modern male writer bar the left-field miniature?

Why shouldn’t the principal consumer become the principal producer?

Women writers, it may be argued, don’t have this problem as, excepting historical pan-opticians such as Hilary Mantel, they tend to write for constituencies — constituencies made up of other women.

The Secret Author was, for example, recently induced to read Rachel Cusk’s Second Place and Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. He enjoyed them both, while suspecting he wasn’t the target audience and that this was pretty much a private party where boys weren’t wanted. This works in reverse, of course: how many women could read a Martin Amis novel without feeling slightly sick?

There is no getting round this impasse. Scheherazade has her foot on the gas, and all us male pedestrians shuffling nervously over the pelican crossing had better get out of the way.

One of the consequences of this gender imbalance is the peculiarly parched and hemmed-in nature of the contemporary novel which tends to lack universality, whatever the sex of its author.

Someone once said that the characteristic pre-war novel was written by literary gents, about literary gents and for literary gents. The characteristic twenty-first century novel is increasingly written by, about and for literary gentlewomen. On the other hand, so hedged about as it is with proscription, convention and the hundreds of unspoken ukases on what one can and can’t say, it’s a wonder these days that anyone writes fiction at al

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