Why male authors are being written out of fiction: As a female writer sparks a storm by saying too many novels are penned by women, best-selling writer BORIS STARLING examines the changing literary landscape
When the American Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout lamented women’s domination of the fiction market at the weekend, she soon found herself the victim of a Twitter pile-on.
‘God, what ignorant quotes from Strout,’ said one post. ‘It’s made me think I’ll never read any more of her novels,’ ran another. While a third asked: ‘Is she one of those women who likes closing the door behind her rather than helping lift other women?’
But Strout, 65, author of bestsellers such as My Name Is Lucy Barton, was making a perfectly good point, albeit one that few people in the incestuous world of publishing are brave enough to make.
To wit, most fiction editors — the people who have the power to buy up manuscripts — are white, middle-class, Left-leaning women.
‘These women . . . are good at their jobs,’ said Strout, ‘but do I think that it’s a good thing? I think that it makes it too narrow.’
Wolf Hall, starring Ben Miles (L) as Thomas Cromwell, Lydia Leonard (R) as Anne Boleyn at Stratford Upon Avon
Daisy Edgar-Jones (R) as Marianne and Paul Mescal (L) as Connell in the BBC Three adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People
American Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout (Pictured) lamented women’s domination of the fiction market at the weekend
This new breed, with their similar upbringings, cultural tastes and political viewpoints, are increasingly commissioning works from authors very much like themselves.
The result is that last year female writers accounted for 57 per cent of hardback fiction bestsellers and 62 per cent of paperbacks — and no men were shortlisted for the Costa First Novel prize, which is worth £30,000 to the winner.
What’s more, the current stars of literary fiction are all female: Irish-born Sally Rooney, whose third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You was released last month to huge fanfare; Sorrow And Bliss author Meg Mason, a New Zealander; and American Brit Bennett, who wrote the acclaimed The Vanishing Half.
Meanwhile, Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall) and E.L. James (Fifty Shades Of Grey) remain queens of the blockbuster.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this is a strange time to highlight the ascent of these literary Amazons because the top three spots on the fiction bestseller list are currently taken by male authors: Richard Osman, John Le Carre and Jeffrey Archer.
But these men are exceptions that prove the rule. The truth is that up-and-coming male novelists are few and far between. In Britain, for example, there are few obvious successors to the famed quartet of Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.
While they are all now in their 70s, they had forged established and distinguished careers by the time they were 50.
The same is true in the U.S., where Jonathan Franzen appears to be more or less the sole flag-bearer for the space that was once occupied by Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and John Updike.
No wonder the former Booker Prize winner John Banville, 75, recently bemoaned ‘this current suspicion about white straight men’, and added: ‘I would not like to be starting out now, certainly. It’s very difficult.’
My pick of modern bloke lit
- Douglas Stuart: Won last year’s Booker Prize with Shuggie Bain, inspired by his relationship with his mother and her struggles against alcoholism.
- Max Porter: Wrote Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, a hybrid of prose and poetry which was translated into 27 languages, and two more novels, all of them critically acclaimed.
- Sam Byers: A graduate of the renowned University of East Anglia creative writing course whose debut Idiopathy won the Betty Trask Prize for first novels under the age of 35.
- Ross Raisin: A former Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year whose novels include God’s Own Country, Waterline and A Natural.
- James Scudamore: Author of four novels, the most recent of which, English Monsters, was described as ‘dark, tender, and troubling’ by fellow writer Edward Docx.
The truth is that we are witnessing a trend which is beginning to look irreversible, since the growing feminisation of the fiction market can be traced back to childhood habits. Girls have consistently proved themselves to be more willing readers than boys. Yes, there are writers who can get boys to pick up a book — David ‘Gangsta Granny’ Walliams, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney, and Cherub series creator Robert Muchamore — but they are few and far between. And reading is a habit that persists into adulthood. It is estimated that around 80 per cent of fiction readers today are women, and a YouGov poll last year found more than twice as many women as men read every day (27 per cent compared with 13 per cent). Meanwhile, almost twice as many men as women never read (22 per cent versus 12 per cent), and 42 per cent of women but only 29 per cent of men prefer fiction to non-fiction.
As any novelist will tell you, the best practice for writing is reading. So fewer men reading novels means fewer men writing novels, and so this chicken-and-egg scenario becomes a vicious circle.
Publishing is rife with stories about how, for many, the pendulum has swung too far away from what was once the status quo.
Take the case of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful crime novelist who was told by the head of a major U.S. publishing company that ‘we’re going to take a break from white, male novelists for a while’.
Or the London literary agent who no longer even bothers to send manuscripts written by authors of that same white male demographic to certain editors because he knows they simply won’t be accepted.
I’ve had my own experience of the new paradigm. When submitting my novel The Law Of The Heart, a love story set in North Korea, I came across several publishing houses who said they loved the book but were wary of a white Englishman making two Pyongyang women the protagonists of the story.
Publishing is a small industry where everyone knows everyone else, so few people want to go on the record about these kind of stories — it would be more than their careers and reputations would be worth, especially at a time when ‘cancel culture’ is an issue that’s very much on publishers’ minds.
For some writers, being male is only the start of their problems, however. The faultlines in publishing run along three axes: gender, class and colour.
If white male novelists feel excluded, this is made much worse if they’re working class, too.
A 2020 Northumbria University report concluded that working-class writers are at several disadvantages, including a lack of support networks, lower levels of self-confidence and an industry-wide lack of social diversity.
Writers of colour are even more marginalised. A 2019 study by the Authors’ Licensing And Collecting Society found that 94 per cent of authors are white, despite the fact that white people make up only 87 per cent of the population.
And it’s not as simple as male novelists being rejected en masse: indeed, there are plenty of reasons why male writers will choose not even to put themselves forward for consideration in the first place.
For most people, writing is a vast amount of work for a paltry income — a 2018 Glasgow University study put writers’ average earnings at £10,497 per annum. The idea that writers lounge around Caribbean beaches waiting for the muse to strike before trousering enormous advances is, sadly, untrue for all but a tiny minority. (There is a beach near me, but it’s on the Jurassic Coast.)
Men in particular are less inclined to accept low advances when they could be earning more elsewhere, and so many publishers receive noticeably more submissions from women, and those men who do send in manuscripts are often older, financially secure and on their second careers.
The good news is that there are plenty of male writers out there, it’s just that they’re working in a different genre. Many young men watch far more television and films than they read books, and so it’s not surprising that they often gravitate to screenwriting instead.
My own experiences of writing for film and TV have been that it’s as much a male environment as publishing is a female environment.
Long-form TV — high-quality drama series which run for several seasons, such as Line Of Duty, The Wire and The Sopranos — has to some extent taken the place of the novel. If Charles Dickens — with his vast canvases of urban squalor, panoply of memorable characters and penchant for cliffhangers — were around today would he be tapping out novels at a laptop in a coffee shop?
No, he’d be a showrunner on a prestigious TV show, marshalling a roomful of writers. Why risk solitude, rejection and penury when you could be Succession supremo Jesse Armstrong, Doctor Who head honchos Chris Chibnall and Russell T. Davies, or — of course — Line Of Duty creator Jed Mercurio?
The white male writers are still very much around. They’re just not writing novels so much any more.
- Boris Starling is an author, screenwriter and journalist. His latest novel, The Law Of The Heart, is published by Lake Union.
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