Sarah Glazer says it's a jungle out there for women writers, but a new kind of success might be offered through self-publishing and book-review blogs.
The furor over Jonathan Franzen's seeming favoritism by the New York Times
recently came up in my living room in London when award-winning novelist Maggie Gee came to speak to my Salon.
It’s a jungle out there, she told us, where the survival of the fittest requires self-promotion, not just good writing. Her story of rejection at a time when her novels had won critical praise and awards astounded many of us.
It was 1995 and Maggie Gee seemed to have it all. Granta
had named her one of the 20 Best Young British novelists in 1983 along with Julian Barnes and Martin Amis—only two years after her first novel was published.
But when she submitted the manuscript of her sixth novel to her publisher HarperCollins (two-book contract!), they rejected it, to her dismay and astonishment, as, eventually, did every other mainstream London publisher.
That novel, The White Family
, a groundbreaking story about a racial murder in increasingly multicultural Britain, would not be published until 7 years later--and even then by a small, independent publisher—though it won critical praise and was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange prize.
Why did almost everyone turn it down? The clue came when her editor at HarperCollins first met her: “I love your work," he said, but expressed surprise at how few people at the venerable publisher had heard of her.
As Maggie Gee recounts in her new memoir, My Animal Life
, that remark made her realize she needed to start wielding a wine glass at literary cocktail parties and make a name for herself in the milieu of socializing publishers, agents and reviewers. Until then, Gee, who describes herself as shy, had thought she could stay home with her daughter and husband and anticipate her success entirely through her writing.
“I see it now; you get out there and smile, and meet people, and are seen on the circuit, which means you are recognized as ‘one of us,’” she writes.
Several people in the room wondered whether male authors do a better job of this, especially when it comes to attracting the attention of reviewers who praise their first book, predict promise and then have to top their own kudos with even more superlatives over later books to support their own critical reputation. Some people wondered about that much-discussed laudatory review on the cover of the New York Times Book Review
that came out before Franzen's novel had even hit the bookstore shelves—seemingly unprecedented treatment for a novelist.
Despite all the sturm
over who gets recognized by the Times
, a recent blog
on She Writes rightly notes that more and more reviewing is migrating away from dwindling newspaper review pages and onto blogs.
And as we heard that night from British novelist Miranda Glover and journalist Lucy Cavendish, there’s another way that women writers are taking the reins into their own hands: self-publishing, which can also give them more say in the publicity machine, as well as sparing talented authors the kind of humiliation Gee suffered at the hands of her publisher.
Their British women writers’ group has taken the first stab, publishing a collection of their short stories, The Leap Year
, under their own publishing imprint, Queenbee Press
, receiving praise from esteemed British novelist and biographer Victoria Glendinning.
You'd be right to wonder: Can a self-publishing imprint, often just the modern equivalent of a vanity press for an author who can’t find a legit publisher, ever give its authors respectability in the literary world? Miranda Glover
, co-founder of the press and the author of two novels published by the Random House’s Bantam Books, thinks so.
“The industry isn't courting new women's writing," she told the Evening Standard
last year. "Established writers are losing their contracts” because they can’t compete with celebrity authors, she said. “There's a space that isn't really being filled. We thought if we set up an imprint … it creates an opportunity for emerging writers to have their voices heard.”
On the other hand, a small publisher like the one Maggie Gee stuck with through later novels doesn't have the power of the big guns, she concedes, when it comes to buying display space on the front tables of the big chains and manipulating sales.
Still, there’s a noble precedent for women striking out on their own. Virginia Woolf got her hands dirty on the printing press in her basement printing her books and those of other Bloomsbury writers under the imprint Hogarth Press. And apparently there was no shame in it. My 1929 edition of Woolf’s magnificent collection of literary criticism, The Common Reader,
tells you right on the title page, “Published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press."
Best-selling fiction author Jennifer Weiner, (whose so-called ‘chick lit’ has been comparatively neglected by the Times) has been protesting through her twitter hashtag franzenfreude
. “I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book—in short, it's something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention,” she said
in The New Republic
reported in Slate
found 62 percent of fiction books reviewed over the past two years by the Times
had been written by men.
Of course that doesn’t answer the question of whether there are just as many good novels by women out there or whether Franzen deserves special treatment. I haven’t read his latest book yet. But I can’t dredge up anything particularly memorable about his last novel, The Corrections
(also praised to the skies by established reviewers) except that it was the first time I’d come across a mention of leaf-blowers in fiction.