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A Way Out of the Literary Jungle
Written by
State of the Art
September 2010
Written by
State of the Art
September 2010

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That novel, The White Family, a groundbreaking story about a racial murder in increasingly multicultural Britain, would not be published until 7 years later--and even then by a small, independent publisher—though it won critical praise and was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange prize.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 and drang 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.

A survey 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.

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  • Alice Rene

    Your article speaks to me particularly. After getting one rejection after another by traditional publishers I decided to go with a POD for my memoir, Becoming Alice. I knew I had to do all the promotion by myself and started by having my book recognized almost every time I submitted it in a contest. My reviews, those that I could get were positive also. I discovered that I rather liked speaking engagements and presentations. I consider my book a success every time anyone buys it. You see, I wasn't willing to wait five years, seven years, or maybe ten years for something to happen. Considering the sign of the times now, my decision was to moe forward and the results couldn;t have been more satisfying for me.

  • Leigh K Cunningham

    I'm picturing a leaf-blower scene in a Jennifer Weiner story and think that might be more entertaining :)

    Authors can now choose the independent route as a first choice. Barriers and (glass) ceilings have been demolished in this new era of publishing - why not step forth and make your own path. Unfortunately we all have to accept that marketing/PR and sales are now an integral part of being an author irrespective of how one publishes, but some books do fly by themselves for the lucky minority.


  • Barbara Forte Abate

    What an incredible relief your very timely post is, Sarah. And here I was thinking "is it just me or what?" My own POD novel 'The Secret of Lies,' arrived in June and although I've gotten some wonderful reviews and positive response from readers, it's overwhelming for a quiet-in-my-room sort've writer to all at once be called upon to promote promote promote in a world that isn't necessarily all that interested. (Alia Yunis called it right, lol. Crappy used car salesman is pretty much it!) I just keep reminding myself that I worked to hard on getting here to play the wallflower. Thus with the same determination that pushed me to refuse to take "no" for an answer from the publishing world, I'm really gonna have to grit my teeth and get involved. Whats more, taking a prompt from Alia, my signature is now my website as well

  • Kelly Thompson

    Interesting insights into the publishing "industry" as it stands, Sarah. Funny. I just received an email from my daughter-in-law inviting me to join a book club. The first book on the list? 'Freedom' by Franzen. I really have no idea what his book is about - I'm assuming it's political? Right-wing? I'll follow Alia Yunis suggestion.

  • Alia Yunis

    Since my novel came out (The Night Counter, Three Rivers Press 2010), it has gotten very good reviews but I can't say the same for how I feel about myself. I have told my friends that I have gone from being a shy writer to feeling like a crappy used car salesman. Crappy because that's how having to do all the marketing makes me feel, and crappy because that's about how good I am at it. So, even if a writer is with a big press, the marketing really falls on HER, and most female authors write because they don't love to hear themselves talk, putting them into a weird split personality mode. As an example of the marketing pressure on writers, my signature is no longer my name, but my website

  • Christina Brandon

    Wonderful post! Like Maggie Gee, I'm a shy person and what happened to her I can see happening to me. Social networking can be really perplexing sometimes, but I gotta take a deep breath and get involved-- and sites like SheWrites are definitely a big help.

  • Jenny McPhee

    Great blog post Sarah and I totally love the art!

  • Patricia A. McGoldrick

    What a great overview of women in the "literary jungle"!
    It seems to me that social media, in general, has enhanced publishing opportunities for female voices. Sites such as SW, blogs of all sorts, Twitter, Facebook--all offer chances for women to express their views and creativity. Self-publishing has also provided great opportunities as I have found in interviews and in reviewing female authors' work.
    There has been a digital electronic revolution--women are definitely right up-front in the event!