Wednesday 18 January 2012

Penguin Books, I'm going to gift you with some solidarity

Dear Penguin Books UK,

Thank you so much for the New Year package you sent me. It was unexpected and delightful, especially the chocolate Santa, which went down a treat, head first. Over the last year I have supported three great books published by you: The Kid by Sapphire, for which I interviewed the author both in the Guardian and onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival; All That I Am by Anna Funder, a major novel which I covered in-depth here for free; and The Pleasures of Men, the first novel by historian Kate Williams, whom I interviewed for The Guardian this week, in glowing terms.

I hope it is obvious from this that I like to stand up for my sisters and am not a handmaiden of the patriarchy. Handmaiden business (I believe "grovelling" is the technical term) is boring, submissive, thankless, degrading - and not reciprocated. The reason I am a women's cultural advocate is because of the marked, obvious and ubiquitous belittlement, marginalisation and under-representation of women in culture and particularly the literary scene, despite women being the vast and overwhelming majority of supporters of all arts both within and without the industry. Some call it the glass ceiling, I call it cultural femicide.

Your surprise package contained five books, of which only one was by a woman: it was Sue Townsend's Diary of Adrian Mole, which I already have, as it's a classic. It was written decades ago. The other books were by Roald Dahl and three current books by Rob Brydon, Lee Evans and J P Davidson. Evans's book is blah. Dahl is a matter of taste - savage, cruelly funny and vivid. I have to admit, I do not respect men who write much-loved children's books but are shit, useless, absent fathers themselves. Brydon's book is gentle, witty, thoughtful and well-written although how much can you do with a person to whom not much has happened?

Davidson's book, Planet Word, accompanies the TV series of the same name, which was presented by Stephen Fry, who wrote the foreword for the book. Planet Word is highly readable, thorough, wideranging, entertaining and impressively complex. In a punchy yet never dumbed-down fashion it covers everything from the origins of language to sign language, dialect development, 'dead' and resurrected languages, swearing and slang, innuendo and euphemism, codes, translation, alphabets, printing, dictionaries, the use of language in advertising and propaganda and much more.

It almost completely ignores women. The final part, The Power and the Glory, has chapters specifically referencing Homer, James Joyce, Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman, Yeats, Shakespeare and Bob Dylan and no women. The vast, near-total, more-than-97% majority of the several hundreds of experts, academics, researchers, quoters, endorsers, literary names, interviewees, case studies, editors, critics, writers or anything-at-all mentioned on every page of the book, which I have read in full, for free and on my own time, are white men.

On Planet Word, women barely exist. Davidson's bibliography at the back of the book covers works of poetry, fiction, social science, anthropology, reportage, literary criticism and cultural commentary and spans many decades. It names 63 male authors and only 7 women, of whom 2 have co-authored books with men. 2 of the books are sole authored by women and one is co-written by 2 women. The last is a collection edited by Nancy Mitford. Of the 63 men recommended in the bibliography, the overwhelming majority of whom are sole authors, several (David Crystal, Henry Hitchins, Stephen Pinker and Christopher Ricks) have had at least 3 separate titles mentioned. It is made insultingly clear just which inhabitants of Planet Word are considered worth reading in any genre or field, from any time, with any approach or structure or voice, and which are not.

As ever, bias is made absolutely obvious by people's behaviour, with comical transparency. What's so funny - as if I weren't already laughing so merrily that I can barely type - is what Davidson's acknowledgements reveal about the way male power is supported by countless highly competent, intelligent and efficient women and how it is then used, taken and passed on by the man to help... other men. Virtually all the behind the scenes work is done by women. The editors of the book at Penguin are both women - Laura Herring and Louise Moore. The production team for the TV series are all women - Annie Macnee, Lucy Wallace, Lucy Tate and Clare Bennett - while the sound and editing are all men (nice traditional divisions). The "back-up" team at the production company are all women - Gina Carter, Zoe Rocha, Emily Martin.  The BBC series was commissioned by a woman and a man - Mark Bell and Janice Hadlow.

But, when it comes to the people who are bigged up in lavish terms as on-screen experts, analysts and endorsers, rather than sheer labour, Davidson gives a list of 4 men and just 2 women. "In particular I would like to thank," he continues, then mentions four more men, all writers and commentators, one of whom is the literary editor I mentioned in this column, who turned down a (future prize-winning) novel with the words, "Oh, don't you know I never read women's fiction?"

This is the kind of utterly naturalised, casual, automatic and endemic bullshit that women writers, academics, editors, experts, artists, politicians, producers, directors, medics, journalists, lawyers, scientists, thinkers, activists, students and speakers encounter all day, every day. Meanwhile, dozens of women work diligently behind the scenes, using all their energy and expertise to ensure that a woman-ignoring, woman-exploiting man is a success, in an area of cultural life where (as any publishing person knows) women make up the great majority of readers and literary festival attendees. I do not use up my time helping to sell copies of books that feature 63 men and 7 women writers in their bibliographies, when we all know that (again) the vast and overwhelmingly major majority of purchasers, readers, writers, promoters, agents, editors, PRs, executives and production managers of books are women. For a book about words and language, and in a field where, again-yet-again, the overwhelming majority of language and English teachers, literature academics, literature students, creative writing students, library workers and translators are women, Planet Word delivers us a good hard slap in the face, just so we know who's boss.

Penguin, I have faithfully done my duty. I studied your books, including those by authors who've made it totally obvious that they will not be reading anything at all by any woman (or inviting her to speak on a major TV series) on any topic or genre or category, from any decade, although they will happily use up women's labour to help their own careers and then promote other men. I have now put all the books in my recycling bin and they have been taken away to be made into deluxe Charmin for women to wipe their bottoms on, in the spare moments between doing the lion's share of all domestic labour + childcare + exploited full-time work outside the house, just under the glass ceiling + trying to fight seemingly intractable cultural contempt in which their achievements, words, thoughts and ideas are ignored as if we do not exist as intellectuals, only as workhorses.

I am grateful for one thing, however. The manworshipping package contained a list of fresh, original and exciting new releases for Spring 2012, many of which caught my eye and which I am delighted to preview here. The overwhelming majority of the books on Penguin's list are by women. They are all extremely strong titles in their categories or genres. The list makes it clear that Penguin is obviously a supporter of women's talents, a sharp observer of readers' interests and a champion of smart, exciting books by new and established voices. So, what happened? I do not consider it any kind of New Year's gift to be given the opportunity to worship men who seem unaware that women exist as anything other than plentiful, useable (and usually overworked and underpaid) labour, diligent workers to be thanked briefly in the acknowledgements after 300+ pages, multiple Notes and a full Bibliography from which they have been rigorously, near-totally excluded.

Here are some great-sounding Penguin titles for Spring 2012:
  • The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams. A darkly thrilling trawl through murky Victorian London as a young woman becomes obsessed by a notorious serial killer, The Man of Crows. Out now. A link to my Guardian article on this is here.
  • The Woman Who Went To Bed For A Year by Sue Townsend. Townsend brings her classic blend of social satire, sharp observation and broad comedy to the story of a woman who decides to ditch the Fantasy Dream Wife And Mommy identity, tell society to go stuff itself and retire to bed, leaving her ungrateful brats and husband to Deal With It. I cannot wait to read this. It's out on 1st March.
  • The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty. Looks like a slick and fast jaunt through 1920s Broadway as New York's lights beguile two women who dive into its roaring 20s flappery delights. I love this kind of aspirational, glam, brittle-edged story. Out 26th April.
  • The biggest 'event' on the list will be Saved by Cake by Marian Keyes, an enormously popular author of genius (and former Orange Prize judge, yo!) whose books have been unjustly belittled as 'mere' 'chick-lit' but who is screamingly funny and has the gift of tackling any topic from alcoholism to domestic abuse in a way that is utterly natural, realistic and often heartbreaking. There is nothing lightweight about this author, she is prolific, fearless, intelligent, frank and enormously gifted. So it has been a real blow to fans to learn of her struggle with depression ...a struggle which she's won, with typical wit, through the Zen of Baking. Keyes starts out as a total kitchen novice who bakes a cake for a friend and realises that her spirits are rising along with her sponges. This book describes how she kneaded, beat, whisked, rolled and cooked her depression away. I even love the cover, a pastel and turquoise spoof of the Dream Mommy Domestic Goddess manuals which seem to be all the retrosexist rage these days. The book's out on 26th February.
There is now a very brief Mumsnet thread on this, in which one comment really stood out:
Bidisha's post ... highlights that the majority of the behind-the-scenes people who make things happen in the book/meedja/culture world are women... but the people in the spotlight are still mostly men.

My first job was at a company which, like Penguin, was owned by Pearson. We were all invited to the Pearson AGM and I vividly remember sitting in the hall amidst fellow employees who were probably 80% female. On stage was a woman - our ceo, Marjorie Scardino - surrounded by several middle-aged men in grey suits. The disparity between the gender balance of the employees and the gender balance of the top management struck me very forcibly...