Last night, the nominations for the Costa book of the year were announced, in the usual pleasingly eclectic categories: first novel, novel, biography, children’s and poetry. Out of 20 writers nominated, 14 were women. There was a clean sweep of female writers in the fiction category, three out of four in the first-time fiction and children’s categories and level pegging in the biography and poetry. This compares to a very similar spread in 2020 (15 out of 20), but a far more even split in 2019 (11 women, 9 men). What is going on, and does it spell ruin for that teetering species, the male novelist?
Ever since the Times’ former deputy books editor James Marriott dared to suggest last year, when the Booker longlist was announced, that the literary industry’s current bias towards female writers was not an example of historic wrongs being righted but a wholescale erasure of many of the voices that readers might wish to hear from, argument has raged as to whether male writers are really getting a raw deal, or if the dominance of women simply reflects the commercial realities of the industry.
Aren’t enough dead white men still stocked in the bookshops? If you want to read Hemingway, or Orwell, or – red flag alert! – Bukowski, you’re more than at liberty so to do
Marriott was roundly condemned for his heretical views, but the critic Johanna Thomas-Corr wrote a similar, less controversial piece, asking many of the same questions, for the Observer earlier this year. The novelist Elizabeth Strout complained last month in the Sunday Times that “I don’t know why this has happened. Those women work hard to get where they are and they are good at their jobs, but do I think it’s a good thing? Well, I think that it makes it too narrow. I mean, if it was all male-dominated that would be a bad thing. And if it’s all female-dominated, then that might be just as bad. We need to mix it up. I also wish there were more male readers of fiction; we need to mix that up.”
We are now in that most bloody and unyielding of situations, a “debate”. On the one side are the battle-hardened troglodytes who are quick to ask when International Men’s Day is, whenever any issue of women’s rights is raised (Friday 19 November, which this year was marked with the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse; he will no doubt become their weapon-wielding champion from this point on). On the other side are pronoun-wielding women who argue that men have subjected readers to their toxic, boorish nonsense for far too long, and should retreat altogether from the field of contemporary publishing. After all, aren’t enough dead white men still stocked in the bookshops? If you want to read Hemingway, or Orwell, or – red flag alert! – Bukowski, you’re more than at liberty so to do.
If you’re a man, find something else to do with yourself. I hear that tech podcasts are very popular…
What is the answer? Should we, as the first group would surely welcome, implement a ‘Men’s Prize for Fiction’? I jestingly suggested what such an award would involve a few months ago, but there are perpetual rumblings that it would only be ‘fair’. After all, the Women’s Prize for Fiction was implemented after the all-male Booker shortlist of 1991. Given the current absence of male writers from the Costa shortlist, it would be seen as an overdue corrective.
Or should we instead, as the second group might prefer, come to regard the idea of male novelists as an anachronism? Those who currently have careers can be grudgingly allowed to practice their craft, but otherwise, if you’re a man, find something else to do with yourself. I hear that tech podcasts are very popular…
The polarised arguments are both depressing to contemplate. But there are some undeniable facts. Women currently dominate every single sector of publishing, from editorial to all-powerful sales and marketing departments to publicity. Most people who buy contemporary fiction are female. The novels that, consequently, sell in the greatest quantities are likely to have been written, acquired, edited, promoted and bought by women. If one’s response to this is to bleat ‘it isn’t fair’, then my only answer is ‘Grow up’. There are philosophical discussions to be had about genres of literature disappearing and about the short-sighted woke preoccupations of those who work within publishing. But these are something entirely distinct to a recognition of what the marketplace is, and is likely to remain.
You might not like it. By the same token, I don’t much care for the dominance of Marvel films in contemporary cinema. But I can also accept that my only effective response is not to give money to their producers, and to write occasional barbed articles about their repetitive and insipid nature. By the same token, those men (and it is, almost exclusively, men) who moan about not being able to publish their novels should come to acknowledge that all their kvetching and bitching about their insufficient representation will have precisely no effect.
You may not enjoy the novels of Sally Rooney or Hilary Mantel. That is entirely your right. But Rooney and Mantel are going nowhere. Their books will continue to sell in their millions, their authors will be profiled in the newspapers and on television, and their work will be adapted across various media. And that, with the greatest of respect, is rather more than John Thomas’ gritty, heavily autobiographical novel Son Of A Whippet (“doughty but hard going”, Alexander Larman, The Critic) is going to do.
Men, the world of writing will be a happier, less feral one when you stop
Instead, male writers have other options. Genre fiction has rarely been so exhilaratingly varied – not least the welcome recent emergence of the excellent Mick Herron – and the presence of the fine writers Ed Caesar and John Preston in the biography shortlist for the Costas shows that biography and history continue to be an equal opportunity area for men to thrive in. A glance at the Sunday Times bestseller list from last weekend reveals that six of the top ten non-fiction hardbacks and eight of the non-fiction paperbacks have male authors. If this is discrimination and marginalisation, then sign me up for more of it, please.
I am sent a vast (really, frighteningly vast) number of novels by eager publicists on spec in the hope that I’ll review them somewhere. As I am merely a put-upon jobbing writer, rather than Superman, I end up giving away the vast majority of them unread. But the thought that there might be even more of these books emerging, cluttering up my letterbox and the bookshelves of my local Blackwells, is enough to turn me into a gibbering wreck. Men, put your pens down, and walk away now. The field is no longer yours. Trust me, the world of writing will be a happier, less feral one when you stop your literary imitations of the Japanese soldiers who continued to fight World War Two for decades, accept your limitations and divert your talents elsewhere.
And don’t, whatever you do, sidle up to me in some louche members’ club and say “A group of us are thinking of launching an alternative Men’s Prize for Fiction — are you game, sir?” I promise to run a mile if so, waving my copy of Normal People as I flee.
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