So here we are, three years on from a bold challenge issued by acclaimed novelist Kamila Shamsie. In 2015, in the wake of research revealing that women writers are far less likely to be recognised when it comes to the big literary prizes, she outlined in a piece in the Guardian the disproportionate space given in the press to male writers and reviewers and the fact that books not only written by men but also with male protagonists are more likely to win awards.
Having made her point eloquently, Shamsie then suggested that in order to “redress the inequality” of the literary world the publishing industry might make 2018 ‘the year of publishing women’ by publishing over a 12-month period only books written by women, timed to coincide with the centenary of women over 30 in the UK getting the vote.
It’s not as if women writers don’t make money for publishers. In The Bookseller’s recent analysis of the sales of literary fiction books in 2017, three women topped the bestselling list. Margaret Atwood’s sales – probably helped by the (excellent) TV adaptations of her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace – were almost up to £2.8m. In second place came Sarah Perry with her award-winning novel The Essex Serpent and in third was the late Helen Dunmore, who sadly died last June, whose final novel The Birdcage Walk and poetry collection Inside the Wave reached sales of £1.1m.
So how many publishers took up Shamsie’s challenge? Precisely one – Sheffield-based independent And Other Stories, who moved North from London last year and who specialise in publishing world-class literary fiction, much of it in translation. However you feel about positive discrimination – and there are arguments for and against – there is nothing patronising or tokenistic about Shamsie’s proposal. Where inequality exists – and it is clear that is the case here – sometimes taking affirmative action is the only way forward. If last year taught us anything it is that inequality, in all kinds of areas is, depressingly, still alive and well.
In their new catalogue And Other Stories state that choosing to take up Shamsie’s challenge gave them “the impetus to address biases that sideline women writers”, adding that “constraints can be creative, and we know our list is the richer for all the new authors you’ll find on it this year”.
They are to be applauded for their enlightened view. Let’s hope that their action prompts others to at least think about and debate the issue.