Male authors are playing second fiddle to female writers -— Nicholas Sheppard

Nine debut books were among the 16 novels to make the cut in this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, announced this week. But what relevance does a gender-exclusive award retain when women dominate the contemporary world of publishing? 

When the Women’s Prize for Fiction was launched in 1996 it was badly needed. Back then, female writers found it hard to get their work published. If they did succeed, their work was, all too often, unappreciated by critics and under-acknowledged. It’s clear that is no longer the case.

When it comes to fiction, male authors play second fiddle to their female counterparts

Women buy 80 per cent of all novels. At the time of writing, the New York Times top 15 bestseller list features 13 female writers. One global survey found 60 per cent of literary agents to be female; another poll, in the American publishing industry, found that 78 per cent of publishing staff overall were female, including six in 10 at executive or board level. According to figures from The Bookseller, 629 of the 1,000 bestselling fiction titles from 2020 were written by women. By 2021, female-authored books sold more copies on average than those written by men. 

In 2023, the path to success appears to be narrower for men: there are fewer prizes open to them and fewer opportunities for male fiction authors to make a name for themselves. Over the past five years, the Observer’s annual debut novelist feature has showcased 44 writers, 33 of whom were female. The Guardian’s ten best debut novelists of 2022 featured two men and eight women. Men were absent among the names of nominees for the most recent Costa best novel award, and almost absent for the best first novel award. The Dylan Thomas prize shortlist in 2021 found room for one man. The Rathbones prize shortlist for 2023 features no men. 

For the top 10 bestselling female authors, who include Jane Austen, Danielle Steel and Jojo Moyes, only 19 per cent of their readers are men and 81 per cent, women. 

Is this because men have trouble seeing female authors as authoritative? Perhaps, in some cases. But maybe the truth is that, just as many women aren’t especially drawn to fiction about sporting dynasties, or gothic violence, many men aren’t especially excited by certain proclivities or leanings towards sensuality, sentimentality and ‘infectious humour’. Such themes feature heavily in the top selling new-releases and on bookstore shelves. (There is now a sub-genre on Amazon called: ‘Women’s divorce fiction’.)

Sadly, the reality is that there is a massive deficit of compelling and exciting male voices in literature. It’s true that male authors continue to dominate the realm of non-fiction. But when it comes to fiction, male authors play second fiddle to their female counterparts. 

Last year’s Booker prize nominees were talented and worthy, but the books themselves weren’t exactly punching into the mainstream or capturing the public imagination. The best male authors, like Martin Amis in the 1980s and 90s, were able to capture the zeitgeist – to burst into the wider public consciousness with daring, provocative, ruthlessly satirical or visceral books.

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, published in 1993, is narrated by a junkie intellectual, Mark Renton, whose struggle against heroin addiction and social deprivation brings competing notions of choice and compulsion into stark relief. The book was a sensation. 

Michel Houellebecq produced Atomized in 1998. It had an immediate impact, and became a bestseller for its often exhilarating way of moving from particular scenes to loftier views of the human condition. It mingled compassion and scorn for individuals caught in the toils of their historical moment. 

In the late 90s, there was almost nothing more hip than Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, a hit among all demographics, and brought to the screen in an equally successful zeitgeist-capturing film. It explored masculinity, fascist instincts, consumerism and alienation in stylish, witty prose. 

With the publication, in 2000, of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers made his entrance into the American literary landscape. It was a rich, fascinating memoir that helped create a literary aesthetic for a whole cadre of young American writers. A few years later, Jonathan Safran Foer was the literary world’s hottest star in 2005, with his novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The 9/11 narrative, in the voice of nine-year-old Oskar, captured the media’s imagination and featured many form-expanding innovations. The book punctured through to the mainstream.

The best male authors have an aptitude for exploring the territory of dystopian fiction, full of portents about technology, science, medicine and societal breakdown, the threats of autocracy, and failed ethics. J.G Ballard’s Crash, published back in 1973, had a huge impact on other authors of his generation. The book attempted to understand modern society’s exhilarating and often destructive relationship with technology. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) explores medical ethics, cloning and technology in a harrowing way, with clones designed to be hosts who could produce organs for donations to regular society.

While Ishiguro, Amis and Ian McEwan continue to pump out books, where are the up and coming male authors who will replace them when these authors put their pens away?

The chair of judges of The Women’s Prize said this week: ‘We are looking forward to celebrating these voices that need to be heard’. In the current publishing environment, it seems that there are some voices likely to remain unheard. 


-Sheppard is a freelance journalist and fiction author, who lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

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