I like Kamila Shamsie. I enjoy her writing and admire her as a person. This week in The Guardian, she condensed her National Conversation with Writers’ Centre Norwich into a ‘provocation’. Her challenge was this: in 2018, the publishing industry commits to a year of publishing only work written by women, literary critics review only female-penned work and booksellers, bloggers and festivals refuse to include books by men.
She quotes a list of statistics which amply demonstrate “the gender imbalance that exists in publishing houses, in terms of reviews, top positions in publishing houses, literary prizes etc”. Her position was designed to create discussion and it succeeded. Comments erupted and arguments flared. I listened to both sides and to my own gut feeling.
I’m a feminist. Of course I am. I’m a woman. Sexism, just like any other form of discrimination, is unacceptable. Battles have been won but the struggle for equal rights is far from over. Especially as we’re still fighting our enemies (FGM/unequal pay/rape as weapon) and, on occasion, our friends (lazy terminology such as MILF).
As a female writer in a gender-skewed business, I agree we need creative ideas to right the balance. For example, the Women’s Prize for Fiction (was Orange, now Baileys) is controversial in its exclusion of men but something I welcome as a positive affirmation of the exciting achievements of women writers. The A Year of Reading Women concept was an extraordinary door-opener to the wealth of novels, short stories, poetry and non-fiction overlooked by mainstream media. Mslexia, a magazine aimed specifically at women writers is another example of adding, rather than taking away.
Hence I applaud Shamsie for making us think harder about how best to take affirmative action. But I cannot agree with a year of publishing only women.
I believe the way forward is not by excluding, discriminating or preventing any group of people from publishing their work. When faced with a wall, you have more options than knocking it down. Scale it alone, make your own door, tunnel under or do what women do best. Lift each other up.
In the UK/Europe, we have prizes, magazines, websites and a readers’ initiative to promote women’s writing. Why not an international literary festival to do the same? Inclusive: embracing women writers of all backgrounds and genres, inviting supportive male writers, showcasing the prize-winners, the risk-takers, the experimenters, the cutting-edgers of right now and the female icebreakers who first took up their pens to chip away at the glass ceiling.
So taking offensive terms and turning them upside down, I’d like to suggest the very first WiLF – Women in Literature Festival – in London next year. In 2017, the project could spread across Europe with mini-WiLFs on International Women’s Day. And in 2018, we can have a celebration of how much women and men have promoted the range and diversity of writing by, about and for women.
Kamila Shamsie – how do you fancy being keynote speaker?