Provoking equality: Kamila Shamsie and the “Year of Publishing Women”

In the summer of 2015, author Kamila Shamsie issued a ‘provocation’ to the publishing industry. Entitled “The Invisible Women“, she challenged them to spend a year (2018) publishing works solely by female writers and writers of colour. Such an extreme approach, she claims, would go some way to countering the imbalances inherent in the publishing industry (and, by extension, society more generally).

While deliberately radical, the basis of Shamsie’s argument is sound. She draws extensively with statistics which reveal an ongoing cycle of gender inequality in publishing. The main focus of her article is that of literary awards and ‘book of the year’ lists, which she singles out as perpetuators of this cycle. As she puts it:

More men than women get asked to judge, nominate, recommend – and of those who are asked, more men than women agree to do so, and those more men are more likely to recommend yet more men.

When these literary spaces are so dominated by male writers, publishers, and critics, the establishment of female-centric spaces, including publishers like Virago and awards like the Women’s Prize for Fiction, can have a demonstrable impact at levelling the playing field. These organisations have helped to improve the situation of women’s writing over the last fifty years or so, but not nearly enough. In Shamsie’s opinion, we still need “more ways of countering the special privileges doled out to white men.”

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Shamsie’s provocation (and, remember, it is intended to provoke), do click on the link above and have a read. Indeed, even if you remember discussion in the media about her proposal back in 2015, I recommend you take a look at “The Invisible Women” too, to understand the source of that discussion more fully.

As for me, I found the “Year of Publishing Women” idea exciting, and was cheered to hear that indie publisher And Other Stories accepted the challenge. They openly acknowledge that their actions alone cannot “redress the numerical imbalance” between male and female authors. But, by stepping up, they gave validity to Shamsie’s argument: that bold actions are necessary as we continue to strive towards equality in publishing. I can’t wait to find out what titles will appear on their 2018 list.

The whole discussion led me to consider my own reading habits. Who did I consider to be my favourite authors? What had I read in the last year? It turned out that my personal “stats” had a lot to answer for as well, particularly since, at the time, I was reading a lot of books by the same small assortment of (mostly male) authors. By the time the New Year rolled around, I had decided to get involved as well; I made 2016 my “Year of Reading Women” (more on that in another post).

Shamsie’s provocation rightly garnered a lot of media attention, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to have reflected on how they may have contributed to the ongoing state of inequality in the publishing industry. I recall that, at the time, both The Bookseller and The Guardian covered it extensively. Yet, having only recently discovered the aforementioned source article, I was surprised to see just how much of Shamsie’s initial argument was focused on supporting writers of colour – a key point that the press largely ignored. That omission is highly disappointing, especially given the fact that, if anything, the inequality between WoC and white writers is even worst than that between women in men. As noted by Media Diversified, in their reasons for founding the Jhalak Prize:

That we live in a mono-cultural literary landscape has been proven time and again, with the Writing The Future report, commissioned by Spread The Word, the backlash following last year’s all-white World Book Night booklist and frustrations echoed by writers of colour who feel that their work is often marginalised unless it fulfils a romantic fetishisation of their cultural heritage.

As far as I can tell, media outlets “simplified” Shamsie’s message by focusing it almost solely on female writers. It’s frustrating, though not entirely unanticipated: Shamsie drily notes in her article that the “Year of Publishing Women Writers and Writers of Colour (YPWWWC)” might not be a terribly catchy title. Yet such an idea, that we should strive to eliminate inequality and bias within the publishing industry, is not supposed to be simple or catchy. It’s supposed to provoke us, the literary community, to strive for a fair and fully inclusive publishing landscape.



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