Thursday 21 January 2016

Women, History and Publishing by Imogen Robertson

I fell down a wiki hole this morning, but perhaps the guiding hand of the muse was upon me, because I ended up discovering the strange, and rather depressing story of Cherubina de Gabriak. In 1909 the literary magazine Apollon published 12 poems by Cherubina de Grabriak alongside an article praising her as a fantastic new discovery in Russian poetry. The male editors of the magazine seemed to fall into a kind of erotic frenzy. Both the editor Makovsky and one of the key contributors, Nikolai Gumilyov who later married Anna Akmatova, exchanged passionate letters with the poet, and in Makovsky’s case, phone calls. 

Cherubina was a Russian speaking, impoverished aristocrat of French / Polish descent, a Catholic beauty apparently living in strict seclusion but harbouring dark secrets. She loftily refused any payment for her work.

The deception fell apart quite quickly. Cherubina was in fact a school-teacher, lamed by tuberculosis called Elizabeth Ivanovna Dmitriyeva. After some of her poetry had been rejected by Apollon, she visited a writer named Voloshin who knew the magazine editors well. He suggested taking on the personna of Cherubina and some of the themes on which she might want to write, and suddenly she was a new star in the literary firmament. After she was discovered, Gumilyov was so insulting about her (in crudely sexual terms according to some sources), Voloshin ended up challenging him to a duel. They both escaped unharmed. Most contemporaries believed the poems must have been Voloshin’s, though both he and Dmitriyeva said they were hers and later scholars agree. You can read the full story here. The crux of the problem seems to have been that when the editorial staff realised that Dmitriyeva was not as beautiful (or quite as aristocratic) as they had thought, they lost interest in her work. 

Now these women are all great historians, but what does it say about how their books are sold that they are all done up like models? Interestingly the quote in the article that jumped at at me was this from Lisa Hilton: “A couple of years ago, Dr David Starkey claimed that female historians, readers and viewers had reduced history to ‘soap opera’, implying that women couldn’t tolerate a more serious approach. This is simply offensive. Why is history involving men ‘proper’ history and history involving women considered a sub category? Women might have been marginalised in the past, but they were never unimportant.” 

I agree entirely, but it’s somewhat at odds with the tone of the piece. Not I’m blaming the writers featured. Can you imagine how upset your (probably female) PR person would be if you turned down a feature in the Daily Mail?

Who was this article aimed at? Are readers really like the editorial board of the Apollon, unwilling to read female historians unless they come up to the aesthetic mark? 

A couple of weeks ago Slate Magazine published an article about women writing non-fiction history in the US. The statistics are pretty depressing. Alison Flood from the Guardian asked me to comment (as chair of the HWA) on the position in the UK. I said that I thought the situation was better here in general, but that I felt women were not writing or not being invited to write the authoritative historical narratives, instead focussing on lost and marginalised voices (which is absolutely work which needs to be done). The article is here

It was shared on facebook and on the HWA email chat thread, and the ensuing discussion was very interesting.  Clare Mulley pointed out that the winners of the History Today awards were women, Nicola Griffiths reminded us of the research she did into prize winning novels which demonstrated when women did win prizes it tended to be for writing about men. Antonia Senior shared a piece she had written for the Times (now also on her blog, so you can read it for free). Others talked about the de-gendering of names (Manda Scott was persuaded to become M. C. Scott for a while, Shona MacLean’s historical crime novels are now sold under S. G. Maclean, and we all know about J.K. Rowling). 

We are all aware of the thinking behind these marketing decisions. Men wont read books by women or about women, and if you are a woman writing a book which is deemed as ‘male’ - swords, male protagonists no romance - then your gender needs to be lightly disguised.

Some members also reported being told that women wouldn’t read historical fiction with a male protagonist, and one male writer said he’d written a book from a female viewpoint and was told women wouldn’t read him.

Then there were the stories of book covers which always had to have a sword and helmet on them if they were written by a man, and a woman in a wafty dress if they were written by a woman, no matter what the actual story was about.

I think because I write crime, my book covers have tended more towards blood spatter than dresses, but though the gender issues are more subtly expressed in the crime genre, I still think they exist. I was told one story of a meeting where an author complained there was a woman’s corpse on their cover, though no women were killed in the novel. They were told that ‘dead women sell books.’ Unpacking those four words needs a book to itself. 

We are all victims of unconscious prejudice, readers, writers and judges alike and I do think the only way we can fight it is to examine and discuss those prejudices when they are pointed out to us. And I don’t think we can all shrug our shoulders and blame the publishers. They are responding to their research to try and sell as many books as possible and that’s a perfectly understandable way for a commercial entity to behave.  But what’s the longer term solution? Aggressively market books by and about women to men? How would the industry do that, and who would take the risk? 


Leslie Wilson said...

When Hilary Mantel's excellent and intensively-researched A Place of Greater Safety came out, some critics panned it because a woman had dared to write a book with such a big focus and about the men of the French Revolution (about some women, too, but that didn't assuage the wrath). One critic said it was the little 'domestic' details that she was best at; the executioner Sanson talking about the wear and tear on blades for the guillotine, and the cost of straw. That was darkly hilarious. However, the book survived these cavils, and has always done very well indeed, largely because the public loved it. Let's face it, the fiction-reading public is more female than male, yet that doesn't mitigate the problem woman novelists have in being taken seriously. I'm really glad you wrote this blog, Imogen; these are issues that woman writers need to make a noise about.

Imogen said...

That's really fascinating, Leslie, thank you.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Well said, Imogen. I agree with Leslie and with your post. We need to be aware and keep a public voice about this matter. I suffer in two senses, I sometimes feel.I am female and I am an actress who has turned to writing books and no matter how hard I try I always seem to get pushed back towards commercial fiction - and I have nothing against commercial fiction. I am about to publish a novel that I am very proud of - but I also feel that I am taken less seriously because I am 'an actress'.

Imogen said...

Yes, I can imagine that having been in such a well-loved series must be a bit of a double edged sword at best! I think you're right - most important thing is to keep talking about it and challenging the assumptions about books, writers, actresses and all.

Judy Krueger said...

I am so glad I visited The History Girls today. Excellent writing on a gnarly topic. Write on History Girls! It seems to me the writing is fine and what needs attention, though I have no idea what form that would take, is for PR and marketing people to combine the goal of high sales figures with the goal of improving the image of female authors. After all, I think most of those PR and marketing people are women, am I right?

Imogen said...

You are indeed! I do feel for them - it's very hard to get attention for any book with fewer and fewer reviews appearing in newspapers and the publishers under pressure to cut costs to the bone in the age of the Amazon discount. There must be a way to do something though with a bit of imagination and co-ordination between publishers. The Books are My Bag campaign seems to have done very well, and World Book Night - though it's been controversial as well with its all white list. Perhaps there's something to be built on those examples? Male celebs recommending books by women and vice versa... turn it into a twitter campaign... Thanks for visiting us.

Gillian Polack said...

Thank you for this post. It was very timely and there's a bunch of stuff happening in the science fiction world that echoes it. We're dealing with broad cultural patterns and it's a real pain.

Carol - it doesn't help when one is a tad too academic and writing novels, either. I often get a "But your fiction is lovely - I didn't think you could do that and have PhDs." People find reasons to argue and to be surprised and to try to fit the complex peg into the simple round hole when women don't fit their stereotypes (it happens to men, too, but it's happened to the vast majority of female authors I know and only the small minority of male). One thing I love about the History Girls is that there is such intelligence and such thought and such amazing writing, and yet we all come from such different backgrounds. I think the bottom line is that we need to keep reminding readers to judge the writing, not the stereotype. And that we celebrate all the different aspects of ourselves.

If we celebrate enough, maybe in a generation's time, historians will have something else to worry about for women's voices will be properly heard.

Leslie Wilson said...

Just after Malefice came out, I was asked to do a slot in some Quaker event and the person who was writing the blurb for it described me as 'a writer of romantic fiction.' I have great respect for many writers in that genre, but the fact remains that when I pointed out that the description was inaccurate, the person who had written the programme more or less admitted that she (yes!) assumed I was because I was female. Admittedly this was in the 90s, but it wasn't what I'd expect from a Quaker. It taught me to check such things carefully.

Clare Mulley said...

My friend Dr Daisy Dunn launched her first two books together last week, a translation of the poems of the Roman Catallus, and a biography of the poet. Her female editor introduced her saying she had caught attention due to 'her writing style, her wit and her beauty', while the Evening Standard added a piece describing her as 'the comely classicist'. When will this end?