Calling the question
Conference organisers, prize judges, pretty much anyone who has a role in deciding who gets to be heard: don’t they notice the roll call of mainly white men?
My colleague at The Bookseller Cathy Rentzenbrink is not only our acting books editor but also is project director for Quick Reads and a highly regarded author for her release from Picador, just this summer, of a deeply felt memoir of fidelity and loss, The Last Act of Love.
When she comes to us, all of us, as she has done in her essay, On noticing, we listen. And for good reason. Here is one of the most measured, thoughtful evocations of the subtle dominance of male culture in publishing we’ve read in some time. Published in The Bookseller’s blog section, it’s not paywalled, and I urge you to read it.
Let me quote her at a bit of length to set up what has triggered this piece, I want you to have the context:
The Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced last week. Six good books – I’ve read lots of them – by six men. The prize rewards audacious and original work, says the press release.
The week before the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction revealed its longlist offering ‘something for everyone’. There were, as Olivia Laing pointed out on Twitter, more men called Robert on the list, two, than there were women, one.
So that’s 18 books singled out for praise in the space of a week only one of which was written by a woman. Why is this? Are women incapable of writing audacious and original fiction? Not much cop at sharing their experience of the world?
She notes that Eimear McBride of the Goldsmith’s judging panel mentions in The Guardian “some discussion of the low number of eligible entries by women.” So actually there was some “noticing” going on in that case. But Rentzenbrink seems unimpressed with that fleeting comment. I have to say, I wish McBride had favoured us with a bit more insight into this, too. Is she saying that a raft of entries by women arrived late and were thus rendered ineligible? Or is she making a reference to actual qualitative viability of women’s writings as opposed to men’s? Were left without knowing and I’d certainly like to hear more from McBride and/or other judges on the point.
How we talk about these things
One thing worth “noticing” is what makes Rentzenbrink’s essay so valuable in terms of tone and approach: No snark.
In fact, I’m reminded in reading her of the concerns voiced with near-regret at times by Jonathan Emmett in his #CoolNotCute campaign for awareness of how we’re presenting picture books to children and the quiet way that a workforce proudly 80-percent female may—without noticing—offer more good content for girls than for badly needed boy readers. Emmett is often at great pains to explain that the last thing he wants to do is suggest that women aren’t rightful and fiercely valuable leaders in our publishing lives today. Of course they are. And he works hard to point out that men aren’t stepping up to take roles in publishing for kids as they should, either.
And here is Rentzenbrink, similarly asking for a fair hearing and noting that she, too, must “notice” the many moments of bias that we frequently simply accommodate and move on:
I don’t want to be a killjoy. I don’t want to distract from the achievements of the shortlisted authors or blame the prize, I just wonder what it means and what I really want to know is, don’t they notice?…Of course, the cultural dominance of men is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I commission profile pieces for The Bookseller I have to intentionally concentrate on widening the net. I have to pay attention.
- 4:00 p.m. London (BST)
- 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST)
- 11:00 a.m. New York (ET)
- 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT)
- 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT)
Unlike the quick slaps in the face issued ’round the clock by our publishing holier-than-thou’s on Twitter (which usually start with “if women ruled the world”…you know those tweets), Rentzenbrink honours this important, pervasive problem by slowing down, expanding its reach into other parts of life, and asking us to truly notice, notice what’s going on, sensitise ourselves to the signs and signals all around us:
My husband has never once been asked about his childcare arrangements but I have lost count of the amount of times I’ve been asked ‘what have you done with your child?’ when I’ve been out late at night or even, horrors, abroad.
What’s more I’m delighted that she, and Emmett, will be among authors working with us on 30th November in our inaugural FutureBook Week Author Day event. I hope hope you’ll join us there if you can be in central London at the time.
Today, come to #FutureChat and tell us what you notice in terms of quietly accepted patterns and traditions of thought and interpretation and description and—maybe most of all—assumption. They’re around us all the time, everywhere, maybe more heavily cloaked and accepted in a tradition-laden industry like publishing than in others.
By Porter Anderson Follow @Porter_Anderson
The FutureBook: #FutureChat today: Are you ‘noticing’ gender imbalance?
Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook