The F-Word

Category: Writing

I’ve changed my mind about MsLexia and The Orange Prize.

The fact that I cannot be published in one or win the other, purely because of gender, used to annoy me.


If we look around and don’t see discrimination in our immediate vicinity, it is easy to assume there is none. Over the years that I have been taking writing seriously I have been in groups and classes where women are in the majority. I’ve never seen signs of these women suffering from gender bias as writers.

And so every now and then, when one of them has announced they are in MsLexia, it has irked me.

Statistics like these from VIDA are amongst the reasons for my rethink. In short – women seem less likely to be published or have their books reviewed in many literary journals.

If you happen to be one of the editors concerned, there are two possible responses to these statistics: denial that there is a problem, or a determination to investigate what is going on and do something to improve things. I suspect complacency will prevail in many cases. But it would surely take breathtaking arrogance to conclude there was no need for these publications to examine their processes.

I’m coming to realise that if men and women write the same sorts of things they can be treated very differently by the industry. The covers will be different for one thing. The female writer’s book will be dunked in pastel gloop, and taken less seriously.

Take Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn – the tale of an emigrant Irish girl’s New York marriage and subsequent return to to the old country. If a woman had written this I think it less likely it would have won The Costa prize and been shortlisted for the Booker. It would have been pigeonholed as yet another example of women’s writing about romance and petty domestic concerns. It would have been given a different cover and marketed only to women.

From the pen of the mighty Tóibín though it has delighted male and female readers. Men can write for everyone it seems, but only women read women.

Literature isn’t the only artform with this problem. Studies have been carried out involving classical musicians. When symphony orchestras audition new players men often do better, but when the audition is carried out behind a screen the genders even out. There is often a disparity even when it is a woman making the judgement. So I expect female editors and publishers can favour male writers too.

I’d like to see more research of that kind carried out in literary circles. The VIDA roundup had its faults – mainly the lack of information on how many women were submitting. You can’t make proper judgements about the numbers hitting the page if you don’t know the numbers hitting the mailbox.

But even if women were not submitting then questions have to be asked about that too.

I’d love to see a blind trial where the same stories were sent to different magazines under male and female names – to see which ones were accepted. Perhaps some of our literary giants would care to provide some test stories to have fake names attached.

VIDA did look at some very traditional publications. I’d like to think newer outlets are doing better. I glanced through the names of the contributors of a recent Gutter magazine. They seemed pretty balanced, not taking into account those writers operating with first initials. Are these women trying to avoid gender judgements? I suspect some are.

I might just try that myself. “Dear MsLexia, my name is GE Anderson and I enclose….”

George Anderson

George Anderson was born in Twechar in 1966. He lives in Leith and has worked variously in journalism, public relations, wildlife conservation and the arts. His writing draws a great deal on music and the natural world for subject matter.

He was a finalist in the Macallan/Scotland on Sunday Short Story competition and has also made the competition's anthology on a further occasion. His story, Tumshie Macfadgen's Bid for Ultimate Bliss was adapted by writer/director Simon Hynd into a Tartan Short film of the same name, winning a Scottish BAFTA in 2004. The success of the film caused George to take his writing more seriously, and he completed an MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University, graduating in 2006. He has read at the Aye Write! Festival and Wigtown Book Festival, where he has also acted as Book Doctor, and chaired discussions with writers such as Janet Paisley, Christopher Brookmyre and Colin Bateman.