With three current female poet laureates, and women winning the Costa, Forward and Carnegie prizes, what have we got to complain about? Debbie Taylor argues that one Mantel doesn’t make a summer…


Nearly 20 years ago, in the inaugural issue of Mslexia, I highlighted the glaring disparity between women’s potential as writers and our actual achievements – and invented a new word, mslexia, to describe the phenomenon. In a nutshell, women study literature in far greater numbers than men, read far more books, and attend more writing courses. All things being equal, we should dominate every prize shortlist and bestseller chart, and run every publishing company. The data we gathered at that time demonstrated that was very far from the case.

Back in 1999 men were twice as likely as women to be published, twice as likely to be reviewed, twice as likely to win major fiction awards, nine times as likely to win poetry prizes. Men were also 25 per cent more likely to submit their manuscripts to agents, editors and grant awarding bodies.

A quick glance at the literary landscape today suggests things have changed dramatically for the better since then. There are currently three women poet laureates. Women won this year’s Costa, Forward and Carnegie awards and crowded onto the shortlists of most other major literary prizes. Does this mean we’ve achieved parity at last? Has the literary playing field been levelled? Is mslexia a thing of the past?

'a few women’s achievements don’t mean mslexia has gone away, any more than the Obama presidency spelled an end to bigotry in the US' 

Sadly not. Though the success of increasing numbers of brilliant women writers has laid the foundations of a more feminised literary canon and provided a slew of new role models for younger women to aspire to, those achievements don’t mean mslexia has gone away, any more than the Obama presidency spelled an end to bigotry in the US. A few dazzling swallows do not a summer make.

No one would dare argue that the success of Black authors such as Jackie Kay and Malorie Blackman means there isn’t an issue for BAME writers; nor that Sarah Waters, Val McDermid and Carol Ann Duffy prove there’s no homophobia in publishing. It takes more than a lusty crop of Mantels to prove that everything’s hunky-dory in the garden of women’s writing.

Which is why I’m taking this opportunity to revisit the issues once more. Because whenever an advance is made, there’s a tendency for society to mop its brow and wash its hand of the issue. But the evidence indicates that mslexia may be far more deeply embedded than we realised, with roots that extend into the syntax of language itself. However before we dig down into the minutiae of language use, let’s look at a few statistics to discover whether mslexia, as we defined in 1999, still exists.

'the evidence indicates that mslexia may be far more deeply embedded than we realised, with roots that extend into the syntax of language itself'


Men in print

Are men still more likely to be published? With the number of new titles each year in the US alone nudging a third of a million, it’s impossible to know exactly. But Ruth Franklin’s team at The New Republic had a stab at it, looking at 13 US publishers who produced fiction and non-fiction of the type eligible to be reviewed – and found that 68 per cent of titles were by men. ‘Only one of the houses came even close to parity, with 55 per cent of its books by men… It was all downhill from there.’

By their own admission, they excluded publishers of ‘genre books and others with a primarily commercial appeal’. But some indication of the gender imbalance at that end of the market can be gleaned by a glance at the Bookseller’s Top 50 in November this year: only 30 per cent are by women. As with literary prizes, the runaway success of stars like Paula Hawkins, J K Rowling and Martina Cole does not mean women have the popular market sewn up. (Interestingly women fare much better in the self-published market, where a recent analysis by online publishing platform FicShelf found that 67 per cent of best-selling titles were by women. As author Roz Morris commented: ‘The scale of the discrepancy shows that women aren’t being treated equally in traditional publishing’.)

If men are still more likely to be published in the mainstream, it’s not surprising that they are also more likely to be reviewed. Our ‘Review of the reviews’ in 2000 found that men’s books were twice as likely as women’s to be reviewed in the UK and that men were three times as likely to be reviewers. Since 2009, the annual ‘VIDA count’ has taken up the baton and found little has changed in the intervening 15 years.

'book reviewers were over three times more likely to use ‘domestic’ words about women’s books, and twice as likely to use ‘ideas’ words about men’s books – regardless of the subject matter of the books concerned'

Though the VIDA figures shamed some magazines into reviewing their editorial policies, a recent analysis of the language used in reviews of women’s books is a cause for concern. US academics Andrew Piper and Richard Jean So analysed 10,287 reviews published in flagship New York Times Book Reviewsince 2000 and commented that it was like being ‘jettisoned back into a linguistic world that more nearly resembles our Victorian ancestors’. Book reviewers were over three times more likely to use ‘domestic’ words such as ‘marriage’, ‘mother’, ‘love’ and ‘beauty’ about women’s books, and twice as likely to use ‘ideas’ words such as ‘leader’, ‘argument’ and ‘theory’ about men’s books – regardless of the subject matter of the books concerned.


Groundhog Day

It’s Groundhog Day all over again, and we’re back in 1973 with Margaret Atwood complaining that a review of her poems praised their domestic imagery, ‘entirely ignoring the fact that seven eighths of the poems take place out of doors’. As Piper and So conclude: ‘Women writers are still being defined by their “sentimental” traits… while men are defined by their attention to matters of science and the state’. No prizes for guessing which traits are considered more important.

Talking of prizes, let’s take a closer look at those literary prizes, where women are at last beginning to make serious inroads. Long-time subscribers may recall that back in 2002 we analysed the style and subject matter of ten Booker Prize-winning novels from 1990-2000 – and discovered that nearly all were written in the third person and had a male protagonist. Yes, including the books written by women! Last year author Nicola Griffith brought that research up to date and found exactly the same thing: 12 of the 15 Booker winners from 2000-2014 had a male protagonist. And this was true of all the major literary awards she looked at, causing her to conclude: ‘the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women’.

‘the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women’ 

Could it be that women are doing better in the literary prize stakes these days because we’ve started writing about men? Or could it be that publishers deciding which books to commission and submit are influenced by previous prizewinners? (Only 40 per cent of titles submitted for the Man Booker are by women.) Or perhaps the judges are to blame, for favouring masculine subject matter? Perhaps we should be looking at the gatekeepers rather than the writers. As Professor of American Literature and Man Booker judge Sarah Churchwell remarked to Kamila Shamsie: ‘If publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism.’

In my Agenda article on ‘The masculine aesthetic’ in 2002, I argued that because men had been the gatekeepers of literature for centuries, – running every book publisher, magazine and newspaper – what has historically been deemed excellent has been synonymous with what men like. And what they like, as survey after survey shows to this day, is writing by and about men.

Easy-peasy, I can hear you saying. All we need to do is change the gatekeepers. Well, actually the gatekeepers have changed somewhat in recent years. Though our own research this year found that women were in charge of only a third of literary magazines, women have long been in the majority employed in mainstream publishing, and it’s rare to find an all-male literary judging panel.

'despite the 50/50 gender split in his poetry publications, Bloodaxe’s head honcho Neil Astley still receives twice as many submissions from men'

However, it’s even rarer to find an all-female judging panel (apart from at Mslexia, of course) – just imagine the outcry. And despite the plethora of women at the lower tiers in publishing (78 per cent in the US, according to a survey of 34 publishers by the team at Lee & Low Books), there’s a noticeable thinning out further up, until – as ever – it’s mainly men (60 per cent) at executive level. According to Philip Jones in the Bookseller, this pattern is repeated in the UK, due to a combination of inflexible working hours and women’s hesitation to ‘lean in’.

And this makes a difference. The Poetry Society told me that the judging panel has a significant effect on entrants to their annual National Poetry Competition. In years when women are in the majority on the panel, they are also in the majority among the entrants. Clearly women believe they will get a fairer reading from women – which may be why, despite the 50/50 gender split in his poetry publications, Bloodaxe’s head honcho Neil Astley still receives twice as many submissions from men.


Yet there is little evidence that women judges automatically favour women. Most investigations show that most male readers are virtually phobic about books by women. A recent survey by Goodreads of 40,000 people found 90 per cent of men’s top 50 books were by male authors. Women judges and readers are pretty even-handed by comparison. What this means, of course, is that any judging panel with equal numbers of men and women on it, will still end up choosing a majority of books by and about men.

'men’s book are over twice as likely as women’s to appear on ‘Book of the Year’ lists, and sell more copies, and reinforce publishers’ bias all over again'

Every December I undertake the masochistic task of totting up the gender balance in the ‘Books of the Year’ in all the major broadsheets (where many ‘heavy book buyers’ get their information) – only to discover, yet again, that the vast majority are by men. This is because, even when equal numbers of male and female pundits are consulted (which is unusual in itself, even in the Guardian), men choose books written by men, and women choose books written by men and women. The result is that men’s books are over twice as likely as women’s to appear on these lists, so sell more copies and reinforce publishers’ biases all over again.

There are so many factors at play in all this that it’s hard to know quite where to begin. But here – in the broadest of brush strokes – is how I believe mslexia comes about.

We have to start with women’s superior linguistic skills, which seem hard-wired into their DNA, because we are largely responsible for teaching our offspring to speak. All the way through school and university we are streets ahead of our male counterparts in all things literary, but as we grow older many of us end up with roles as unpaid carers and housekeepers, which eat up time we might otherwise spend furthering our careers as writers (or anything else for that matter). Those of us without children and partners have more time, and so are better able to storm up the literary ladder, as a scan of current stars in the literary firmament makes abundantly clear.

Our traditional role as carers – of children and relatives with disabilities – means that our use of language tends to be different to men’s. Women tend to talk (and write) about relationships; men to talk (and write) about information – this was confirmed by some astonishing research by a team at the Illinois Institute of Technology, who analysed a 25-million-word chunk of the British National Corpus. So far, so understandable. The rot only set in at the dawn of publishing, when men’s talk (and writing) was deemed to be superior to women’s. 

Uneven playing field

This is why the more closely a woman writer can approximate to the masculine aesthetic, the more likely she is to succeed. No wonder – as our own surveys have repeatedly demonstrated – we have so little confidence in our writing; no wonder we hesitate to submit our work; no wonder we are so discouraged when we are rejected. The cards really are stacked against us.

'Catherine Nicholas sent out her novel to 50 agents and received just two requests for the whole manuscript. When, as ‘George’, she submitted the same material to 50 agents, 17 asked to see the whole book' 

If you doubt my words, consider the experience of novelist Catherine Nichols, who sent out her novel to 50 (male and female) agents and received just two requests to read the whole manuscript. But when, as ‘George’, she submitted the same covering letter and pages to 50 agents, 17 agents wanted to see the whole book. ‘George is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book,’ she says. What’s more, the feedback she was getting as ‘Catherine’ praised her ‘beautiful writing’, while ‘George’ was praised for being ‘clever’ and ‘exciting’. As Catherine, she says, ‘I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition’. Which led her to wonder to what extent other writers were having their individuality stifled and being steered onto the restrictive tramlines of ‘women’s fiction’. 

That’s certainly what Meg Wolitzer believes. In the New York Times Book Review, she argues that diverse books by women tend to be segregated and lumped together as ‘women’s fiction’, and so prevented from ‘entering the larger, more influential, playing field’. Publishers perpetuate this bias by packaging women’s books so that they appear less weighty – with ‘domestic’ imagery on the covers, for instance – and reviewers follow suit, in both the quantity and subtext of their coverage, as I demonstrated above. As The New Republic Editor Ruth Franklin remarks in ‘Why the literary landscape continues to disadvantage women’, ‘we have gained admission to the world of men… but admission is not the same thing as acceptance’.


Watching the boys

Here is how prize-winning author Claire Vaye Watkins summed up the situation in her essay ‘On pandering’ in Tin House last year:

‘Nearly all of my life has been arranged around…watching boys, emulating them, trying to catch the attention of the ones who have no idea I exist.

‘I watched Melville, I watched Salinger, watched Ford, Flaubert, Díaz, Dickens… I read women, but I didn’t watch them… I have built a working miniature replica of the patriarchy in my mind. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati.

‘About a year ago I had a baby, and while my life was suddenly more intense, more frightening, more beautiful, more difficult, and more profound than it had ever been, I found myself with nothing to write about… I thought I had enough material for a novel but when it came out it was a short story, and one that felt unserious… Nothing’s happening to me. I need to go shoot an elephant.

‘But I don’t want to write like a man anymore. I don’t want to be praised for being “unflinching.” I want to flinch. I want to be wide open.’

So say all of us.



Debbie Taylor is the founder and Editor of Mslexia.


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