The Bonar Hall had a very calming ambience this morning, with soft, dimmed lighting. As the (what turned out to be mainly female audience) gradually entered, everyone was warmly encouraged to sit near the front where the first two rows were made up of chairs around desks. I think this was to create a more relaxed atmosphere, breaking down the typical forward facing rigidity of the audience, and to encourage conversation amongst attendees. However, never being one to optionally sit at the front of a classroom, I sneaked into a seat in the row second from the back.
This discussion definitely had more of a panel like feel, rather than an interview talk show. Sasha de Buyl chaired the conversation with author Zoe Venditozzi, Claire Stewart (Co-Founder of Electric Bookshop and Board member of the Glasgow Women’s Library), and Chitra Ramaswamy who is an Edinburgh based columnist and freelance arts and features writer. These women were at the Dundee Literary Festival today to discuss the gender issues that unfortunately exist in today’s book industry. Sasha began by introducing each woman and then led the conversation by asking, what is the “core of the problem”?
The perception of women writers appears to be one of the answers. Zoe began to answer this question by reflecting on her own experience of writing about domestic settings and how work of this type is not deemed “exciting enough”. She joked about how she felt if she were to write a book titled, “Sparkly Golden Vagina” that it would become more widely recognised because it shocks. But, (and rightly so) Zoe doesn’t want to, and shouldn’t have to, change what it is she writes about or how she wants it presented just to fit into what apparently sells.
This led the conversation towards the issues of literary prizes and reviewing. These are the main avenues through which books gain recognition, and both areas, as pointed out by Claire and the other speakers, are dominated by males (both male writers and male reviewers). I found out something today that surprised me, as I didn’t realise that publishers are the ones who put books forward for prizes, (embarrassingly, I wasn’t sure how selection was organised) and so the lack of women writers and books about women being recognised this way is partly due to the publishing houses in this respect. Claire (only part jokingly) suggested a new prize, something like, “the Women’s Voice book prize”. Even though this initially seems like it would only encourage the division of the ‘woman writer’ and ‘the writer’ (the male, yet non gendered, title), Zoe commented how we need to “push it [women’s writing] forward so it becomes normalised” because unfortunately, as it stands, it is not.
Although around 70% (I’m sure Sasha noted) of the overall readership is female, there is still something that is seen to be icky about women writing about normative women’s experience. Chitra herself has actually written a collection of essays on pregnancy but she told us these have been deemed “too woman-y” to be good sellers – as she rightly put it, “you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t”.
Today’s discussion on “Literary Cooties” (a term I believe to have been coined by Nicola Griffith) was a fascinating discussion that questioned the book industry and its norms, and attempted in offering solutions to the gender problems that exist within it. Although there is a long way to go before reaching equality, I feel that confronting the problem, and talking about it, making people face it, as these women have, is the first step towards some positive change. What we need now are more male attendees.