Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Women and Men - Sally Nicholls

Before you read this post, take a look at these statistics from women's writing magazine Mslexia:

authors of books published 1991 65% 36%
authors of books reviewed 1991 73% 24%
authors of reviews autumn 1991 77% 23%
authors of books reviewed autumn 1998 68% 32%
authors of reviews autumn 1998 73% 27%

and these:

Nobel Prize for literature (1902-1997) 96% 4%
Booker Prize short-list (1969-1995) 65% 35%
Booker Prize winners (1969-1998) 69% 31%
Betty Trask Award for romantic fiction winners (1984-1995) 62% 38%
Whitbread novel winners (1971-97) 67% 33%
TS Eliot Poetry Prize winners (1993-8) 100% 0%
Forward Poetry Prize winners (1992-8) 92% 8%
Whitbread poetry winners (1971-97) 90% 10%

Scary stuff, no? Other evidence in the article linked to above suggests women's work is likely to be underrated simply because it is written by a woman - in a study in which pieces of writing were given to readers to rate, identical pieces of writing were consistently rated higher if they had a male name attached to them.

But children's fiction is different. Isn't it? There certainly seem to be a lot more women floating around children's fiction - I don't have precise figures, but a glance at any children's writer's forum, conference, or organisation shows an overwhelming female predomince. Look at publisher's catalogues and you'll see the same phenomenon. "Oh yes," someone at my publisher (Scholastic) said when I asked about this. "Most of our authors are women, definitely."

Fantastic. (Though rather sad for all the male authors and readers). Or is it? "Of course," my source continued, "All our highest selling authors are male. Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, Terry Deary ..."

A look at children's prizes shows a similar female focus. The Branford Boase has been won by 70% women and 30% men and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize by 59% women and 41% men. Only the Carnegie Medal - considered by some to be the Children's Booker - strikes a discordant note, with 53% of medals awarded to women - still a majority, but a much smaller majority than the number of women writing for young people would suggest. Also the Children's Laureateship, which to date has been held by four men and two women, although the sample size is much too small to draw any conclusions from this.

I don't want this blog post to imply that I'm against men writing for children. I'm not. I think children need as wide a range of writing as possible, something that can only be provided if the are given writing by as wide a range of authors as possible; male, female, white, black, Asian, British, European, American, poets, scriptwriters, comedians, tragedians, whatever. I think male writers for young people should be encouraged. Nor do have a problem with any of the men chosen as Laureates or awarded Carnegie Medals. I think children's fiction is in a much better state than adult fiction, and has a lot to be proud of.

I just think it interesting that in an industry so dominated by women, with so many successful women writers, male writers are still disproportionately recognised at the highest levels.


catdownunder said...

I write letters to the editor of our state and national newspapers under my initials. I sign my name by signing my initials. There was never any particular reason for this. It just happened.
Some time ago I had a 'phone call from a young journalist on the state paper. He asked for me by my initials. When I said, "Speaking" there was a moment of silence and then (excuse me here) "Bloody hell. I owe him a drink." He had apparently insisted I was a man - because I used my initials and there is an assumption that men, rather than women, write to the press. Hmmm...think I'll keep my cat identity after all.

Charlie Butler said...

Very nice piece, Sally.

Catdownunder, that reminds me of a conversation the Prime Minister Ted Heath was said to have had in the early '70s. He needed to speak to Dr X, a prominent scientist, but when she answered the phone he was so nonplussed to hear a female voice that he asked her blusteringly, "Why are you a woman?"

"Because I have two X chromosomes," was her admirably dry reply.

By the way, I've just noticed another interesting statistic: over 90% of ABBA bloggers are female!

John Dougherty said...

It's much the same in primary school teaching. There aren't many male teachers in the primary sector, but if there are two in a school, the chance is relatively high that they'll be the head and the deputy.

That said, Sally: while I accept the point you're making, it's difficult to draw conclusions from the statistics you quote. You only give figures for books published in 1991 - without more detailed figures over longer periods of time, and without separating out publication figures for poets, it's impossible to tell whether the awards figures really are as biased towards men as one might think. I bet there are more conclusive statistics out there, but journalists don't - as a rule - seem to be terribly good with stats.

And, no, I'm not bitter because the majorest awards I've ever been shortlisted for were won by Meg Rosoff and Julia Golding respectively...

John Dougherty said...

...Oh, and I suppose having made a fuss about the use of stats, I ought to admit that my comment about teaching is purely anecdotal and not based on research.

I bet I'm right, though.

Anonymous said...

How odd! I dreamed about you last night, Sally, and you had invited me to a girls only party. When the men gatecrashed, I was so furious that I got up and left.

Nick Green said...

Isn't Joanne Rowling 'J.K.' because Bloomsbury advised her not to advertise initially the fact that she had two X chromosomes? The extraordinary thing is that even now, when she is the bestselling author of all time, ever, in any genre (I don't have the stats but 'I bet I'm right'...) female authors, especially for children, are still encouraged to veil themselves behind initials.

What is that all about? Sally, ever considered becoming 'S. Nicholls', in the hope that at least one idiot thinks you are a man called Simon? (Though it would make those school visits a tad unsettling, perhaps).

Charlie Butler said...

Well, that's weird! I thought I'd check up on my Ted Heath anecdote to make sure I wasn't slandering the old bachelor, and discovered that while I'd got the conversation right, the person Heath rang up wasn't a scientist at all, but the editor of The Dictionary of National Biography.

Her name? Dr C. S. Nicholls...

Sally Nicholls said...

Phew! I had a horrible feeling last night that I would open the comments box to hundreds of people criticising my statistics, pointing out that women are still ahead on children's prizes and accusing me of slandering the children's laureateship, none of which I intended to do.

The statistics are taken directly from Mslexia magazine's opening leader, so yes, are a bit out of date. I got the children's statistics myself (by counting), but I only realised I was supposed to be blogging late yesterday, so they're the only up-to-date statistics.

Interestingly, of the first six Carnegie winners, five were women, which only goes to emphasise what I was saying about the Laureate statistics being too small to generalise.

And Nick, when I was a little girl all my books were by S. M. Nicholls, because I thought it made me sound more distinguished. But then I heard that G. P. Taylor used his initials 'to be like J.K.R.', and it put me right off ...

Katherine Roberts said...

I've heard it said that a woman has to be twice as good as a man at whatever she does to earn the same amount of public recognition and respect for her work. I have always worked to that formula in my own life - it saves a lot of frustration, and can be quite satisfying if/when you do get any kind of recognition!

But I believe the JK initial thing was originally so that boys would not be put off buying the Harry Potter books. Would they have been put off? That's a million-dollar question, I suppose.

Jon M said...

Interesting post. It would be interesting too, to see how many women worked in publishing and what positions they held. My limited experience has been that most of the people working on my book are female.

I've also noticed that this blog post is becoming dominated by men... well at the time of writing...

Sally Nicholls said...

My experience of children's publishing is that it is overwhelmingly female. I can think of two men who work at Scholastic - everyone else is women. And last year's Carnegie judging panel - which picked an incredibly male-focused shortlist, without one book with a female lead character - consisted of eight women and two men.

Nick Green said...

> last year's Carnegie judging panel - which picked an incredibly male-focused shortlist, without one book with a female lead character - consisted of eight women and two men.

It was the fault of those muddle-headed women, then, you think? :-)

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, one can't rely on women to look after women's interests - Mrs Thatcher was a good example of that, though one of the few things she did was to introduce separate taxation for women, so that I am no longer a financial adjunct to my spouse. I'm always surprised that more people don't suppose me to be male - though it does happen. But maybe that's why boys like my work - they don't need to worry about being seen reading a woman's book. It's all very depressing, though, and shows that we have to keep standing up for ourselves..