Speaking in a BBC interview recently, Fay Weldon described the current publishing market, emphasizing that it was dominated by women readers, who demanded women protagonists—and, increasingly in the #OwnVoices era, women authors. Ms. Weldon’s advice for male writers: use a feminine pseudonym.
As far as I could tell, this wasn’t a joke. It’s somewhat ironic, surely, after the prejudice against women writers prevalent in the nineteenth century—consider Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte, who all published anonymously or with masculine pseudonyms—that the exact same prejudice has returned, apparently, in reverse. (In spite of the much-vaunted inclusivity and diversity that we all value nowadays: maybe it doesn’t include men?) In case you think that Ms. Weldon is exaggerating the difficulty faced by men getting their fiction published, or even read, consider this: one of my male writer friends has told me that he intends to adopt a feminine pseudonym (independently of me bringing up the subject) and another is considering submitting his next novel with a woman as co-author. That’s not a statistically significant sample, obviously, but anyone researching the current market can’t help but be struck by several salient facts: nearly all literary agents are women; most of them are actively looking for women authors who are writing about women, and represent far more women authors than men. I don’t blame them: they have to earn a living, and if the market demands women’s stories, written by women, of course the industry is going to respond to it. I’m also aware that many successful writers are still men, especially the older ones. But not so many of the up-and-coming writers of literary fiction are. So what’s going on?
That’s a complex question to attempt to answer within the province of a short essay. Perhaps most readers of literary fiction have always been women—at any rate, that was the perception in the nineteenth century, when men, including educated ones, tended to regard the novel as a silly, emotional form for women to entertain themselves with. But it’s certainly interesting that in the twentieth-first century, when many academics regard gender as a social construct (mistakenly, given the clear scientific evidence) that the trend continues and is so marked. Are girls being taught that fiction is something suitable for them, while boys are taught that it’s rather soppy and sentimental? It seems unlikely, given the prevailing educational ideology.
In any case, to me, any kind of prejudice—against women or men, or anyone of any gender whatever—seems a colossal mistake. Shouldn’t the criterion of agents and editors be the quality of the writing, rather than the identity of the author, or the protagonists? Am I ‘mansplaining’? I don’t think so. I’m not against women getting their fair share of attention in the literary marketplace. Certainly there are many brilliant women writers who deserve it. But if a writer of the stature of Fay Weldon is advising men to pretend they are women, surely something is wrong in the literary world? One wonders whether Tolstoy and Flaubert would be struggling to publish Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary—after all, what could a man know about what it feels like to be an adulterous woman? That’s just appropriation, isn’t it?
I’d like to think that there are still publishers who will judge a literary work on its quality and nothing else, but I’m more and more pessimistic about that. I’ve been trying to interest agents in my latest novel, which is about a narcissistic, misogynistic, nationalistic, pompous man—not the current president of the United States, but the Italian poet and playwright, Gabriele D’Annunzio—and his extremely strong, independent lover, Eleonora Duse. So far I’ve had very little interest. Could that be because the writing isn’t any good? Obviously it could. It’s hard to judge one’s own work objectively, but insofar as I am capable, I consider this one of the best books I’ve written, and possibly the best. And the few agents who have commented as they’ve turned me down have said nice things about the writing and theme, describing it as intriguing and fascinating—but have added that they can’t see it fitting into the current market. That suggests that the problem is not that I’m not writing well enough, but that such a subject isn’t in fashion. That’s a pity, it seems to me, because far from condoning D’Annunzio’s behaviour, the novel explores it, in all its complexity, and (I believe) with considerable relevance for people today.
But maybe I just need to change my name? After all, there is a powerful woman character, indeed several, in the novel. If I were, say, Rebecca DiMarzio, would the response be different?