The Edinburgh Book Festival catalogue has, once again, arrived by post. As ever, it’s dominated by male authors. Lots and lots of men writing books and speaking about books and having important thoughts and questions about books. Granted, there are a number of women authors represented in photos but that’s clearly an advertising fudge. At least, I think its a fudge. I haven’t actually bothered to count the number of male and female authors attending and then do some fancy maths comparing them with the photographic representations. But, I’m pretty confident that the women authors are disproportionately represented in the photographs of the festival than women authors are actually speaking at it.
In fact, most of the women authors seem to be children’s authors. Now, I’m a huge fan of children’s fiction [except for Twilight and books about magic ponies. Those are just all kinds of awful] but we all know that in the world of literature, children’s fiction just doesn’t quite cut it which is unfortunate as, apparently, J.K Rowling is one of the only billionaires in the UK who actually pay proper income tax. [Not that I’m suggesting anyone who hasn’t read all her books needs to run out tomorrow to buy them, but a brilliant woman author who pays tax? The Tories won’t find one of them]. Children’s literature is dominated by dead, white men. Newer, more popular, children’s books are derided as rubbish and dull. The Harry Potter books, some of the best-selling books ever, are frequently dismissed with “at least, it gets boys reading book”. Talk about damning with faint praise. Now, I do happen to think that there are a lot of children’s authors who write literature [as opposed to popular fiction which I enjoy just as much]. Women like Kit Pearson, Jean Little and Madeleine L’Engle write literature [however poncily you want to define that term]. Authors like Jacqueline Wilson, who is a constant presence at EBF and financially successful to boot, are relegated by snobbery to being unimportant. The dismissal of books aimed at children is part of cultural femicde because it denies the very power and success women writers have with audiences of children, who are just as critical about the quality of books as adults are.
There are some incredible women authors attending EBF. I’m looking forward to Caroline Moorhead’s The Resistance Women Who Survived Auschwitz. I am interested in the contested definitions of resistance as is applied to the Holocaust and how the label of “resister/resistance” is culturally appropriated or denied depending on political context, who has the right to label themselves resister and who has the right label others as resister. This debate is clearly played out publicly in discussions over Fania Fenelon’s memoir Playing for Time; a book which is both feted for its honestly and critiqued for its rewriting of history. I’m also looking forward to Jeanette Winterson, Kate Summerscale and Monique Roffrey. I have, for the past few years, tried only to see women authors speak but it is difficult, particularly when one is starting from a feminist position.
Interestingly, and totally opposite to the rest of my ranting about the EBF in general, is the Anobii First Book Award given to either writers of their first book or overseas authors whose book has just been translated into English. This award seems to have gender parity which raises some interesting questions. I don’t actually know how authors are selected; if they volunteer or are chosen by committee. However, if they are chosen, then it does seem like the emphasis on “Important Male Authors” is a deliberate [if subconscious] policy. It also reflects an ageism since the women writers nominated for the Anobii prize are all very young, reflecting both their status as first-time published authors but also, perhaps, an acknowledgement of the cultural femicide inherent in the book industry. At least, I hope so. Either way, the Anobii prize is quite odd considered the gendered nature of the rest of the event.
And, finally, I’m also slightly perplexed by the keynote question which is “should literature be political?” How, precisely, can someone argue that it isn’t. Even the drivel which is Twlight [and it is serious fucking misogynistic drivel about loving your abusive boyfriend and cutting out all your friends and family so he doesn’t hurt you] is political. Hell, its the ultimate Patriarchal Handmaiden text written by a Mormon evangelising the no sex before marriage bullshit which works out so well for society. Literature is, and always has been, political; as much when it focuses on the private lives of individuals as it does on the public political and cultural structures of society. Also, the panel to discuss it seems to include no one in possession of a vagina. Obviously, because women never write books about political issues.
I do love EBF. I love the hope they maintain every year in holding the festival in a bunch of tents in Charlotte Square. I love the fact that its a mud swamp by day three. I love the whimsy involved in tossing random rubber ducks into the swamp for decorative purposes. Most of all, I love the fact that the slide show shown before every session only contains pictures of lovely literary people having picnics in the grass on the one day a year that the festival isn’t a mud swamp. You can’t argue with that level of cognitive dissonance. Yet, every year I’m disappointed by the lack of women writers, by the lack of overtly feminist writers. As a general rule of thumb, EBF is a lovely day out with a great bookstore but the Independent Radical Bookfare held in October has a greater variety of authors and a better gender parity.
Oh, and before I get any pissy comments telling me to calm down or that I’m over-reacting, women buy more books than men. Women read more books than men. There are more women involved in the publishing industry than men and it’s women’s volunteer labour which makes many book festivals possible. We should expect gender parity in book festivals when the vast majority of people involved in the industry have vaginas.