Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Forward Women

I did a keynote speech for the Guardian's brilliant Forward Women event today, discussing my career and the climate for women in publishing, and I thought I'd post a section of it up on my blog for those who couldn't attend. I've cut the opening section of my speech, as it covers familiar ground about the beginnings of my career, but here's the rest.



... Even now, in 2015, there are certain paths we are expected to follow; certain behaviours that are considered “womanly or unwomanly; certain sacrifices we are expected to make to fit in with the norm. I was horrified recently to read of a gender equality survey carried out by YouGov in 24 countries, where one of the statements put to participants was “It is unattractive for women to express strong opinions in public”. The global average of female participants who agreed with that statement was 15%. Let me just repeat that: a global average of 15% of female participants taking that survey believe it is unattractive for women to express strong opinions in public. In 2015, that should be 0% for both male and female respondents, but to see women think it was particularly upsetting, and shows that we still have a lot more work to do.

It has also traditionally been women, rather than men, who were expected to choose between their career and being a parent. Just this month there was an article in the Telegraph with a female headteacher who said that we shouldn’t be telling young women that the glass ceiling no longer exists, because the onus is still on women to make tough choices between their biological calendar, to quote the article, and their work life. 

I did a radio interview with Caitlin Moran in 2014, and she used a fantastic quote, “I cannot be what I cannot see”. Young women need to see themselves in all sectors to be reassured that they belong there. We can see from recent campaigns for more women to be on bank notes and in passports that we still struggle to celebrate female achievement, in no small part because women were historically not allowed to enter certain jobs, but also because we are only just beginning to realise that the way we teach history has very much been about “his story”, not hers. As I said earlier, one of my special subjects at university was Principles of Film Criticism, and in all of my time studying it, I didn’t learn about any female directors. Yet I discovered later that some of the earliest filmmakers, like French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché, were women. Guy-Blaché was making films before women were even allowed to vote. I had to find out about her from Twitter.

One of the ideas I wanted to address in this speech was whether or not being female has affected my career. I don’t believe my gender has significantly held me back in terms of my success as an author, but I do think it has given me a different experience of the book world than I would have had as a man. The publishing industry itself is certainly not male-dominated; many literary agents, editors and other members of the industry are female, as are many successful authors. However, if you dig a little deeper, there are still many hurdles we need to overcome as we strive for complete gender equality. The annual VIDA count, which analyses literary journals and periodicals through the lens of gender, highlights what the VIDA organisation calls the “sloped playing field”, where men are more likely than women to review books, and have their books reviewed, in major publications. Numbers have improved since 2010, when the VIDA count first revealed the scope of the problem, but it does still exist.

There is the issue of explicit gender markers on books. While many people will be familiar terms like “women’s fiction” and “chick lit”, there is no public awareness of “men’s fiction” – because it doesn’t exist, presumably because men’s fiction is considered universal, while women’s is not. Shannon Hale, author of the Princess Academy series and Austenland among others, has recently started a campaign called Stories for All, where both male and female authors have shared their experiences of gender-based marketing, and how boys are often assumed to not be interested in books about girls. The campaign contests the idea that there should be “boys’ books” and “girls’ books”. I am very lucky to have a publisher that doesn’t box my books as being for women only – my covers are gender-neutral – but some women, like the bestselling author of Chocolat, Joanne Harris, have reported having their work bound in flowery or pink jackets, even if such stereotypically feminine motifs and colours are not relevant to their writing.

In the midst of this, I am very grateful to my publisher for urging to me to use my own name on my books. Originally I was planning to use an androgynous pseudonym or my first initials, as I was afraid that men might be put off picking up my books if they saw that a woman had written them, and in a way I was right to be afraid. When Joanne Harris highlighted her experience of sexism in the industry in a string of tweets this July, she reported being told by a man at an academic party that he “never read books by women”. This a sad and limiting attitude, and it’s one that won’t go away while terms like “women’s fiction” exist in the public mindset. Fortunately, Bloomsbury didn’t think it was necessary for me to hide my gender. This marks an encouraging difference in the publishing house’s perspective since JK Rowling was asked to use her initials for fear that boys would be put off reading Harry Potter. I’m relieved that I followed Bloomsbury’s advice and wrote under my full birth name, because, as I quoted earlier, “I cannot be what I cannot see”. It’s vital that women feel confident using their own names and identifying as female within their chosen career, in order to normalise the presence of women in all sectors.

Within books themselves, we have seen an explosion of female-driven stories, particularly in Young Adult fiction. Although my books are published as Adult, I also have the great privilege of participating in, and knowing many people from the Young Adult book community, where there are more complex, interesting, and independent female characters than you can shake a stick at. Protagonists like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen are often praised as role models for modern women. In 2008, Katniss was a new kind of heroine, the polar opposite to damsel in distress Bella Swan from Twilight, who gives up her mortal life for a husband and a baby. Like Bella, Katniss gave birth to a new kind of book, this time with a lead character not defined by her love interest. “Strong female character” is the ultimate buzzword in today’s crop of books for teenagers, especially teenaged girls. A clear message is being sent: that female readers are rejecting the Bella life, taking up their bows and firing an arrow into traditional gender roles for women. On the surface, this seems like a positive step towards empowerment, but the more I’ve considered it, the more it seems to continue imposing a harsh dichotomy on girls, and raise another glass ceiling in the world of fiction. Female characters of all kinds are being written about, but they are persistently viewed as being “strong” like Katniss or “weak” like Bella, rather than multifaceted, unique people. 

When I was in Spain on tour last year, a journalist told me bluntly that my narrator, Paige, was not as strong as Katniss Everdeen, and he asked me why this was. I was at a loss for words, because I couldn’t work out why the question was relevant. Paige and Katniss are completely different women. They go through different experiences and cope with them in different ways – yet here, they were pitted against one another. It felt like a competition I hadn’t entered, a little Hunger Games of its own, with female characters constantly compared and vying against one another to be “strongest”. I still kick myself for not asking the journalist how he came to the conclusion that Paige was weak. I have my own theories, and I’m uncomfortable with all of them. Nowadays, I would definitely have tried to engage the journalist in conversation about it. If there’s one thing I could tell my past self, it’s to be more confident in questioning and sharing ideas with other people.

In my four years in the publishing industry, I have very rarely, if ever, seen male characters likened in this way; neither have I heard the term “strong male character”. Male characters are treated as individuals, as people, and are by default assumed to be strong, while in my opinion, many female protagonists are positioned as knock-offs of their predecessors; copycat cut-outs of Katniss Everdeen or Hermione Granger or other girls who came before them, as if only a limited number of women can be acknowledged as individuals in fiction. There should be room for every female character to exist without comparison to others. It might seem trivial to assess how fictional characters are treated by the media, but all good fiction holds up a mirror to reality. After a few years of observing this culture of comparison, I have resolved never to think of myself as being in competition with other women in my industry, or in my life in general. I want to try my best to raise up other female authors and celebrate their accomplishments as I would celebrate my own. I don’t want to compare myself to them, but to stand alongside them.

In conclusion, I want to encourage all of you today not only to use this conference to learn valuable skills for your own careers, but to talk to the women around you, the other young women who are attending this conference, and be inspired by them. Take heart in their ambition and their achievements. Share wisdom among yourselves. Celebrate what women have done, can do, and are doing. Encourage each other to reach for your goals. Every step women take in their professional lives is a step towards addressing a history of invisibility and ensuring that new generations of women can envision themselves in all careers, and if we take those steps together, it won’t be long before women will stop surprising everyone with their strength.

4 comments:

  1. Dear Samantha,

    I was one of the young women who attended the Forward Women's conference and I just wanted to express how refreshing and empowering it was to hear your speech. I was struck by your genuine nature and felt a real sense of connection with the vulnerability and simultaneous courage you portrayed. I found your personal journey to success encouraging, as it gave me a sense of confidence in my own abilities and aspirations.

    I want to thank you for taking the time out to share your story, your thoughts, and your words of advice, as I truly found them motivational. I would also like to thank you for facing your own personal challenges, in the aim of inspiring a generation of young women who desperately need to be exposed to women such as yourself.

    I wish you continued success in all that you do.

    Best wishes,
    Artenisa Qosja

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  2. Hi Artenisa,

    Thank you so much for your kind words! I'm so glad you found my speech interesting and inspiring. Best wishes to you in all your endeavours.

    Samantha

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  3. I've been thinking about this post because the pitting of women against each other has definitely bugged me for some time and that "Paige is not as strong as Katniss" comment irks me too. What I notice is that often, women are called "strong female characters" if they behave in traditionally masculine ways. Perhaps some people think that because Katniss hunts, is a deadly warrior, and has little time for or inclination for romance for much of her story, she is "strong". If that's people's definition of a strong female character, then I think it's actually insulting to the complexity of Katniss's character as well as women in general. As you said, Katniss's character is a reflection of the world she lives in, and she certainly has plenty of moments of weakness and vulnerability. Then, from a completely different world altogether is Buffy, no one can dispute that she is a 'strong, badass, and lethal woman', but she also insists upon maintaining a normal life, dating (though half the time she is dating vampires, not so normal), wearing cute clothes, going to prom, having fun with her friends, things "strong female characters" are supposedly not interested in. Is Paige considered weaker by this journalist because she has her heart broken? Develops romantic feelings for someone she previously believed was her enemy? has been physically bested in a fight a number of times? Is manipulated and duped by someone she believed she could trust? That happens to about every hero of every epic story.
    I don't believe that women, in fiction or in real life, are under any obligation to prove their "strength" to anyone else, and as a reader, I want varied, complex characters of all genders.

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