In 2015, author Kamila Shamsie called for 2018 to be a year where only books penned by female authors would be published. Her article, published by The Guardian, began: ‘It is clear that there is a gender bias in publishing houses and the world of books. Well, enough. Why not try something radical? Make 2018 the Year of Publishing Women, in which no new titles should be by men.’
She added: ‘What would it look like, this changed landscape of publishing in 2018? Actually, the real question is what would happen in 2019? Would we revert to status quo or would a year of a radically transformed publishing landscape change our expectations of what is normal and our preconceptions of what is unchangeable? I suggest we find out.’
Unfortunately, 2018 won’t be the year in which we find out what this changed landscape looks like. There is, however, hope on the horizon.
And Other Stories, a Sheffield-based press headed up by publisher Stefan Tobler, have taken on Shamsie’s challenge, the only publisher to do so in the UK. With their main focus on publishing literary fiction in translation, they are not only supporting English-language female writers hoping to break into the currently male-dominated arena, but championing women across the world whose work deserves more attention and acclaim.
To hear more about the origins of their decision, and what titles we can expect in 2018, we spoke to Nichola Smalley, a director at And Other Stories.
Culture Trip: In 2018, And Other Stories took up the challenge to only publish books by female authors, the only UK publishing house to do so. What triggered this decision and what is the high-level aim?
Nichola Smalley: The decision was triggered by a ‘provocation’ issued by author Kamila Shamsie in 2015. She called for 2018 to be a year of publishing only women across the publishing industry, as a way of addressing the continuing domination by male authors of literary fiction over the prize lists and reviews pages. It would coincide with the centenary of the partial enfranchisement of women in the UK. Our ultimate aim is to contribute to a conversation that leads to women’s literary voices being taken as seriously as men’s, and being as widely represented as men’s, both on our own list, and across the industry. This applies particularly to literature in translation, where only around a third of books published in English are written by women. Hopefully, our decision will have a ripple effect on other publishers, both in English and in other languages too.
CT: To what extent has the #MeToo moment been a factor in your decision to publish only women in 2018?
NS: We made the decision long before #MeToo started, so it wasn’t really a factor. Building a year’s list takes several years of reading, translating and editing!
CT: Female representation in 2017 was ostensibly quite strong, with the majority of the Costa Book Awards nominees being female, and with Sally Rooney picking up the Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year Award. However, the statistics still demonstrate a considerable inequality between the number of published male and female authors. How can we move from transient representation to actual equality?
NS: It’s about looking beyond the surface – our preparations for this year have not only been about publishing women, but about allowing us to focus for a time on one important issue. We’ve always wanted to be open to authors that don’t arrive via the ‘high road’ of agent submissions or the tips of foreign cultural institutions, and always wanted to question the biases in publishing. But we didn’t always succeed in beating the biases. We too have historically published more men in translation than women, for instance. That’s partly because the submitted writers for possible translation have been largely male, as we noticed when tracking submissions this past year. So with our Year of Publishing Women we’ve been forced to look harder for the best women writers in translation, as well as for writers of colour and other groups that are under-represented in literature. It’s a work in progress, but yes, the important thing is to move closer to actual equality.
CT: Can you tell us more about the books you are publishing this year? Which authors are you particularly excited about?
NS: Where to begin? Our collection of Ann Quin’s stories The Unmapped Country (edited by Jennifer Hodgson) was a great start to the year for us: it’s had a fantastic reaction from critics and readers alike, and we sold out our first print run in two weeks! Then we’ve brought the fantastic Swiss-Italian writer Fleur Jaeggy to a whole new readership with a reissue of her classic masterpiece Sweet Days of Discipline (tr. Tim Parks). In April, we’ll be launching the English language career of multi-award-winning Catalan writer Alicia Kopf, whose breathtaking novel of family life and polar exploration Brother in Ice is going to do big things in Mara Faye Lethem’s translation. Then we’ve got Pure Hollywood: brilliant short stories from Christine Schutt, an American master of that form; The Iliac Crest (tr. Sarah Booker), a mind-bendingly excellent novel of gender and identity from Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza; and classic, never-before-in-English-translation gothic voyeurism from Norah Lange called People in the Room (tr. Charlotte Whittle), as well as so much more on into the autumn!
CT: How would you respond to critics who say that the Year of Publishing Women suggests female authors require special assistance?
NS: There have many people over time who’ve argued that quotas are patronising to women, or that merit should prevail, but the question is, if you’re operating with deeply-entrenched biases that disadvantage women (or indeed other groups), what are you missing out on? Who are you denying opportunities to? As I said previously, before this year, our own stats for published books were skewed in favour of male writers, and that’s despite us being feminists, and the majority of our staff members being women. The argument about special assistance ignores the fact that there are structural inequalities and personal implicit biases among the people who make decisions about what gets published, reviewed, nominated, etc.
CT: And lastly, what book(s) are you currently reading?