Alison Flood in the Guardian has written a piece about author Catherine Nichols finding that submitting her manuscript under a male pseudonym brought her more than eight times the number of responses she had received under her own name. “In an essay for Jezebel, Nichols reveals how after she sent out her novel to 50 agents, she received just two manuscript requests. But when she set up a new email address under a male name, and submitted the same covering letter and pages to 50 agents, it was requested 17 times.”
Responses from agents to Catherine Nichols included comments such as “beautiful writing, but your main character isn’t very plucky, is she?”; responses to her male pseudonym were “polite and warm”, even when they were rejections, describing the work as “clever”, “well-constructed” and “exciting”. One agent who sent her a formal rejection as Catherine asked to read “George’s” book, and then asked to send it to a more senior agent.
Nichols’ essay comes at a time when the literary world is under scrutiny for its attitude to female writers, with Vida’s annual count of the paucity of female reviewers, and female authors reviewed, added to in recent months by the novelist Nicola Griffith’s discovery that novels featuring male protagonists are more likely to win literary awards. The novelist Kamila Shamsie has called for a “year of publishing women” in 2018 to “redress the inequality”.
The Flood article goes on at some length but ends with the comment: “Nichols has since used the comments she received as “George” to rework her novel – and now has an agent.” So the book needed work, the work was done and then accepted.
I saw the headline to this article and felt outraged. Then I got to thinking about it and I have the feeling there will always be personal bias in the selection of anything, from sweeties to flash cars and everything in between. I also suspect, but cannot prove, that there are fewer men writing than women these days, which might be one reason the so-called male submission was taken up so readily. Women write about things women are interested in, and men do not find them so engaging. Yet male readers must be catered for in the bookshops and it seems the agents are busily looking to fill that need.
Perhaps women writers need to invade the literary world; to start writing literary reviews instead of putting a paragraph on Amazon and Goodreads. It takes time to write a fair review, to put forward an argument and back it up with facts. Perhaps more women need to write about something other than simple romance, tackle bigger topics. Then the recognition might come. I wonder how people feel about War and Peace v Gone with the Wind? Me Before You v Anna Karenina? Is one more literary than the other?