Time to reach higher? … a woman takes a book from a shelf at the 2017 international book fair in Beijing. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters
When Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s first book, El núcleo del disturbio came out in 2002, she was 24 years old, a fresh, female voice in a Latin American literary scene dominated by male greats: Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez. Every good review was important, even if the praise was occasionally backhanded: one well-known Argentinian critic loved her debut and said that she wrote like a man.
More than a decade later, she rolls her eyes. “That’s a compliment? It was so strange to me … and he was trying to be very nice, trying to cheer me up and push my career,” says Schweblin, now with a Man Booker International prizenomination under her belt.
It is an example of the insidious dismissal of female writing over time. Books by women are seen as domestic and unpolitical. As Margaret Atwood said in 1971: “When a man writes about things like doing the dishes, it’s realism; when a woman does it it’s an unfortunate genetic limitation.” Norman Mailer could famously “sniff out the ink of the women”, for it was “fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid”.
This dismissal is not merely anecdotal, but has been tested out in several revealing experiments by writers. When novelist Catherine Nichols submitted her manuscript under a male pseudonym she got eight times more responses than she had received under her own name, while poetry hoaxer Gwen Harwood found that deliberately subpar submissions under a male name were greeted more warmly than her genuine verse (even when they contained the acrostic: “Fuck All Editors”). The bias is pervasive enough to have acquired a name: “gynobibliophobia”.
Reading itself is an undeniably gendered pastime: women read more fiction, while men read more nonfiction, and less overall (nine books a year on average, compared with women’s 14). Female writers attract mostly female readers (about 80%, according to a 2015 Goodreads survey), while male writers tend to attract an audience that is evenly split. Or, as Siri Hustvedt once said: “Men who write fiction have an audience representative of the world as a whole while women don’t.”
But translated female authors such as Schweblin have a particularly hard time finding their way to an English readership. In 2016, 33.8% of books translated into English were by women, compared with 63.8% by men, the University of Rochester’s Three Percent blog foundrecently. Of the last 10 years, 2008 was the worst, with only 23.4% of translated work by female authors – but that is only a little worse than the decade’s average, with 28.97% by women (1,147) against 68.50% by men (3,351), with the remaining work jointly authored titles.
What explanation do we have for this disparity? Is the writing of women the world over so consistently less impressive than that of their male contemporaries that it doesn’t warrant the effort of translation? Is English publishing just more sexist? Could you go into any local bookstore and see this disparity on the shelves?
Likely not; the phenomenal success of a few authors – Elena Ferrante, Han Kang, Isabel Allende – so skewed the landscape that it is hard to notice. But even a lifetime of success in their own language doesn’t always help an author reach English. When Romanian-German Herta Müller won the Nobel prize in 2009, only one of her books had been translated into English; already more than her fellow female Nobel laureates Gabriela Mistral, Grazia Deledda and Nelly Sachs, none of whom had any until after their award. When Svetlana Alexievich won, six years after Müller, none of her books was available in English, an oddity explained thus by one editor at the time: “English and American publishers are loth to take risks on a book just because it’s good, without something like a Nobel prize.” But only one male laureate out of 99 – Italy’s Salvatore Quasimodo – was unpublished in English when he won.
“I think there is this belief that English produces enough of its own books, and so we don’t need to look further,” says Dr Chantal Wright, a German translator and coordinator of 2017’s inaugural Warwick prize for women in translation. “It’s like the local food issue – I get it, I do believe my potatoes should come from down the road. But I like oranges, too.”
It is hard to identify a sole source of blame. In interviews for this article, some translators blamed the publishers; those in publishing said they didn’t know about the books in the first place, so it was down to translators and agents.
The tougher hurdle to leap is the systematic dismissal of female writers that has insidiously affected everyone agents, editors, publicists, readers.
Strangely, as Wright points out, publishing is overwhelmingly female, “which makes it all the odder that female writers wouldn’t be picked up … It’s a tricky one. Active intervention is needed, because I think it is hard to look beyond one’s own position. I’m a woman, I’m white. You have to remind yourself that there are other genders, other colours, other nationalities. It requires us to stand beyond ourselves,” she says.
But solutions for this undeniable bias towards male writers, translated or not, are alternately divisive and impractical. Kamila Shamsie demanded that 2018 should be a year of publishing only women, a call to arms echoed by indie publisher And Other Stories but ignored by the rest. Any talk of active intervention inevitably raises hackles. Even 20 years of the Baileys prize (now renamed the Women’s prize for fiction) haven’t halted the annual bunfight over whether it should still exist; we don’t need it any more, it’s sexist versus we do, you are. The Warwick prize, to be announced in November, is seeking to reward translators of either gender who bring a female author into English. (Interestingly, the balance of male and female translators is more or less equal – so far in 2017, women have translated 248 books into English while men are responsible for 249).
But any talk of quotas doesn’t appeal to Schweblin, who says we are in “a very dangerous moment … We are prioritising quantity over quality, making quotas and not finding the best writers. I am not saying this problem is solved in every field. It is not. But it is almost solved in literature. And I think it is important to think in quality, not quantity.”
Every writer and translator I spoke to had the same solution: talking about it. And they are. Campaigns like #Readwomen and Women in Translation Month (each year in August) have given new energy to decades of resentment now bubbling into a loud and clear fury – at the Spanish publisher that tried to sell Elena Garro books with comments about her sex life; at the relentless obsession of journalists with the exotic beauty and offensive dislikability of Brazilian great Clarice Lispector. Both the speculation that the pseudonymous Italian author Ferrante must be a man, and her subsequent unmasking, were reviled as attacks on feminist sensibilities.
All of which is feeding a new candour among translated women authors. “This is the moment that things are changing,” says Schweblin. “Recently a BBC journalist asked me, ‘Why are most of the characters in your book women?’ Now, four or five years ago, I would have tried to find an answer, invent something to explain myself. But instead I said: ‘Oh my God, we’ve had so many books filled with men, but we don’t question it?’ We’re defending our positions.”