It's been an interesting couple of weeks for ... well, now, exactly how do I complete that sentence? ... the fairer sex? ... those of a female persuasion? ... literary ladies? ... Let's just go with women. An interesting couple of weeks for women in the world of literature.
Last Tuesday, we had Fay Weldon saying on BBC Radio Four, "There are books, and there is literature - and women read books", adding that women "read for comfort". I noticed a few splutters of objection on Twitter, but generally her comments didn't seem to stir up the kind of backlash I'd imagined when I'd heard the interview on my drive in to work. I'm tempted to wonder whether that would have been different if such broadly dismissive comments had been made by a man?
Next came the news that the Women's Prize for Fiction will, from next year, have Baileys as its title sponsor. Reaction to this seemed considerably stronger, from lofty sneering at the liqueur in question in the Telegraph, to a down-with-snobbery, bring-it-on whoop of delight from
the Scottish Book Trust that the prize has a secure future once more.
All of this overshadowed, to some extent, the fact that this year's award was won by AM Homes, for her book May We be Forgiven, making her the only person - male or female - who's managed to beat Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies to the top spot in a major competition.
As usual, the Women's Prize for Fiction brings with it some hand-wringing and soul-searching. Is a prize restricted to women entrants actually necessary? Is it patronising? Is it [deep breath] sexist?
Danuta Kean makes a good argument on her blog for why the prize is important. But, right at the start, she spoils it all by her response to men questioning the need for a women-only prize: "Diddums". By assuming the only reason to question or criticise the prize is because jealous male writers see a £30,000 prize they're not allowed to compete for, Danuta misses the point - or at least, one of the points (I'm sure there are some green-eyed men grinding their teeth and swearing never to drink Baileys again (more on that, later)).
I'm speaking here not as an embittered male writer deprived of the chance to win a substantial wedge of cash, but as a male reader interested in contemporary fiction. I'm a member of a minority - it's estimated us chaps account for just a fifth of fiction sales. However, though we're a small band, our influence is considerable. The vast majority of broadsheet critics and reviewers are male, and they tend to review books written by men. This disproportionate representation at the top of the literary food chain is what concerns and annoys Danuta and a lot of other people. The argument is that, by having some sort of old boy's club determining what's good literature and what's too girly to even bother with, female authors don't get taken seriously and a lot of fantastic books by female writers get overlooked.
All of this makes sense. But it relies on the idea of broadsheet reviews and critical opinion being the whole story. I haven't been able to find any information on how getting a review in, say, the TLS affects book sales. Do the 77% of women in the UK (who account for the other four fifths of all fiction sold) read reviews? Does it actually influence their decision as to what books to buy? If that was the case, books written by men would hugely outsell those by women - is that the case? These aren't meant to be rhetorical questions, but with limited time to research all I can say is it's not a simple matter to find the answers. There always seems to be a decent mix of male and female authors in the top ten whenever I go into Waterstones, and (in recent years, at least) there's been no shortage of female authors on the shortlists of major literary prizes. When I went to the Voewood Literary Festival last year, there was by no means a male bias to the selection of authors speaking and signing books.
What I'm getting at is that it's all very well bemoaning the bias of the critical establishment, but without data to prove it makes a difference, then it's impossible to say whether or not it's actually a problem. Danuta Kean cites Marian Keyes as a typical example of an overlooked female author, writing "about alcoholism and depression" but saddled with the burden of being deemed a "chick lit" author. I've never read one of her books (and, yes - the swirly font and hearts on the cover would probably put me off), but it's hard to be too sympathetic with her plight when her books frequently sell more than five million copies and have made her one of the richest writers around.
It strikes me that women appear to be a lot more 'social' with their reading, and a book will do well through word of mouth even if it's been ignored or even lambasted by the critics. The Fifty Shades phenomenon was perhaps the most compelling example of this - women read it not because it was any good, but because all their friends were reading it. It didn't need to win any prizes to become one of the most important and influential books of recent years (and, no - I haven't read that one, either).
Whether or not that theory's true, I am left wondering about this idea that the best way to draw attention to women authors and their work is by having a women-only prize. Is it likely that female drivers would be more respected by men if they had their own lane on the motorway? Dividing fiction into "Fiction" and "Fiction Written by Women" doesn't make sense to me. There's no way to dispel the impression this gives that the kind of stories women make up are less important, less powerful, and need to be judged away from the bright lights of the stories the men have concocted. This is, of course, utter rubbish - but here we are.
Which is why I can't get my head around the choice of sponsor for the Women's Prize for Fiction. Baileys. Sickly, sweet, and quite thick. Is that really the image female writers want to be associated with? Okay, the latest Baileys adverts are striving for a more refined, glamorous image, but it's still aimed entirely at women. Baileys' involvement isn't something that's going to make many men sit up and take notice. You could say, "So what?" but, with more than three-quarters of women already buying books it's not them the organisers need to convince. Less than half of men buy books, so it would have been encouraging to have seen a sponsor that might have been able to shift the stubborn perception that women write books for other women to read. As it stands, I can't see how having Baileys at the helm is going to do anything other than reinforce the status quo, with the dusty old critics peering over their reading glasses and saying, "Aw, bless 'em and their girly drink, still scribbling away at their funny little kitchen table dramas."
Surely that doesn't do anybody any good?