The (publishing) year of the woman

Fewer women win the Man Booker Prize than men. Books about women are less likely to win prizes than books about men. And in 2015, Kamila Shamsie published a piece in The Guardian proposing that throughout 2018 all new titles be written by women. And Other Stories was the only publishing house in the UK to take up the challenge. We've been talking to their fiction editor, Tara Tobler (pictured below), in advance of her appearance at Birmingham Literature Festival.

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What's the gender problem in publishing?
There are a number of sides to that question. There are problems of imbalance in staffing. But also problems in terms of who gets published, for what reasons, and how they’re marketed. And there’s an issue around what kinds of stories are actually being brought out, and which kinds of stories are not just popular but are lauded in the top level ways.
 
And Other Stories fully acknowledges that there are many women authors who are out there doing quite well. Where we see a deficit is in the top prize lists — the Booker is the big one but it's an accumulation of statistics that makes for sad reading. In the field we specialise in, literary translation, it’s very difficult to find books by women from certain parts of the world because the literary culture there is quite masculine still.

So, when Kamila issued this challenge to mark the anniversary of universal suffrage we at first were a bit frustrated. We try to make our list equitable. We try to find women from all over the world. But we were struggling because texts by female authors just weren’t getting submitted. So at first we were thinking, we’ll write a riposte to this challenge, saying actually it’s really hard. But then we thought, that’s not actually the most productive response to this. Let’s do it — the hard thing — and see how much extra work it takes to get these fantastic women on to our list of publications for 2018.  

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How much extra effort has it actually been?
We’ve been working on this project since 2015 in order to make this year possible. We had to take up the challenge immediately. Partly because we do translations, it takes a while from acquisition to editing. And publishing has a very long media lead time as well.

It's certainly been challenging. Even though the call out was very public, we were still getting submissions from men — the best of which we had to ask to wait until 2019 or go elsewhere. It took a lot of work, and it was largely through the recommendations of authors and translators we work with that we found the list we’re bringing out this year.

And has there been any backlash?
There was one formal letter of complaint to the Equalities Commission from an MP on behalf of his constituents, but the Commission spoke with us, cleared the complaint, and has no issue with our programme. Less formally, we've been the recipient of a handful of nasty emails, but those were trolls. We've had no grief from agents — most have been very supportive.

Why are you the only UK publishing house to take up the challenge?
Some have a differing view of the situation — they don't have an affirmative attitude to affirmative action. Some are just too large and don’t have the kind of flexibility that we as an independent do. And some houses are in this game for different reasons to us. You probably don't need me to tell you that publishing works by Mexican, Argentine and Lithuanian authors into English for the first time, when nobody in the English speaking world has heard of them, isn’t necessarily the most lucrative business. But we'll see. Everything is a gamble in publishing, and in order for something to really take off, a confluence of events has to come together and it’s something that for all your marketing genius, you can’t really control. Our first book, a collection of previously unwritten short stories called The Unwrapped Country has come out to really substantial acclaim. So far, it's been great.

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What are you most excited to be publishing as part of the project?
The great thing is that everybody in the team would answer that differently. I'm personally really excited for Dear Evelyn an English language novel by Kathy Page (pictured), which tracks a 70-year marriage over the course of the 20th century — a stunning portrait of the time, and in terms of the human detail, just flawlessly realised. Kathy is one of these writers that we think has been unjustly neglected. We'll be re-releasing her novel Alphabet, which went out of print after slow sales. It's one of the best novels in the English language — staggeringly good.

There’s also an Argentine author called Norah Lange who was adored by Jorge Luis Borges and the coterie of authors in the 50s and the 60s that has never been translated into English before, so we’re doing a novel of her's called The People In the Room which should be a real sensation. It’s a really gorgeous sort of Virgina Wolfe-esque dark, psychological study of femininity and enclosure.

And what are you reading right now?
It’s actually top secret. I’m one of the judges for the Northern Book Prizethat we’re launching this year, so I am reading the shortlist, and I won’t say a word beyond that, except that it’s looking great. And don't tell anyone, but I think I may have a favourite already...

See if you can get any more out of Tara, who is taking part in the panel discussion 2018: The Year of Publishing Women on April 28 as part of Birmingham Literature Festival (April 27 to 29).

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