Literary Hub

The Rise of Women-Only Literary Spaces, UK Edition

woman writing

In her 1929 essay, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf declared “it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex.” By 2017 it seems it’s all anyone is thinking about. 

It’s an intriguing matter. Woolf’s essay suggested that women should write as women, but not as women conscious of being women. The advice appears to remain until this day; at Cambridge University I was often told in my all-female college by male and female supervisors alike to “write like a man” in order to succeed. Later working in London for England’s oldest literary journal it became clear under an entirely male board the attitude was depressingly similar. Despite the frustrations of such an environment, when I looked around me it was evident the literary world of London was thriving, particularly in regard to female voices. I found solace in a vibrant community that cared for others rather than sitting dragon-like on an archive rich with long-dead (mostly male) writers. Here were publications and presses, cropping up left, right and center, championing and caring for the voices that the world had yet to hear. Investing in the canon of the future rather than merely pandering to the canon of the past. 

In the current climate, as any women’s magazine will tell you, feminism and women’s rights are “having a moment.” It’s clear that the conversation about inequality across the board in the age of Trump is alive and kicking. In a world where you can buy feminist T-shirts on the high street, there’s a new and exciting attitude towards all-female literary spaces. Yet the same challenges remain. Debbie Taylor, editor of the literary magazine Mslexia, one of the first all-female spaces to appear in the UK literary scene when it was founded in 1999, still advises women to go about using a gender-neutral name in order to avoid bias from publishers, which suggests things haven’t changed since the Brontës were trying to get into print. Often being a woman in the world, let alone a woman writer, feels like a case of façade. To play the game or simply re-invent the board? For all-female literary magazines and collectives there’s little doubt about the answer. 

Denise Riley observed in her 1988 critical work on the changing notion of “womanhood” Am I That Name? that “both concentration on and refusal of the identity of ‘women’ are essential to feminism” and the rising trend for all-female literary spaces over the past few years seems to take on board this double challenge, of both highlighting women’s writing while subverting the very meaning behind such a limiting term. 

The dawn of the millennium was clearly a crucial turning point for the UK. The Internet had created a new kind of liberation, and the rules of publishing changed. Marginalized and neglected voices were able to come to the fore. The past few years has seen an encouraging rise in the number of literary magazines both online and in print specifically showcasing work from female authors, and digital platforms in particular have played a key part in successfully diversifying voices and audiences. In 2013 poets Sophie Collins and Rachael Allen (who also works at the prestigious literary magazine Granta) founded tender, a magazine released exclusively online as a PDF. Accessible to all, it’s featured everyone from Emily Berry to Eileen Myles. Created out of the concern for the “large discrepancy that exists in publishing between male and female writers” it’s become an online haven for female voices but also a vital platform that showcases women’s writing openly online. “It feels special” says Allen, “like we’ve created a space where work by women can be shared, it feels like a kind and positive place.”

The idea of all-female literary collectives is by no means new. Virago was famously founded as a dynamic feminist press in London in the 1970s. Today it maintains its status in the publishing world, yet has become part of the establishment it once worked against. “Virago always wanted to be mainstream” publisher Lennie Goodings famously noted, adding: “we publish from the margins, but we’re not marginal.” This mindset has seen the publishing house go from strength to strength, yet the gaps that Virago initially set out to fill remain a problematic space that smaller independent presses and publications are eager to satisfy. 

Just last month London saw the launch of Silver Press, an all-female publishing house “committed to reaching beyond mainstream publishing and mainstream feminism.” Once again the press is founded by women on the inside of the industry: Sarah Shin (who works for Verso and Tilted Axis Press), and Joanna Biggs and Alice Spawls (of the London Review of Books). Unlike larger publishing houses it’s unafraid to identify itself as “proudly feminist,” the press recognizes that “books are weapons, and we hope that the ones we publish will make a political impact as much as a literary one.” It’s striking that in order to publish such work they’ve felt the need to break out on their own. 

After all “if the literary landscape is dominated by specific groups, how can we be healthy as a society and benefit from both our differences and commonalities?” notes Amy King, chair of VIDA, an organization that has produced some excellent reports on the gender dilemma of the UK and US publishing industries. The statistics released in 2015 were certainly a jog to the consciousness of many editors. For many it was a welcome wake up call, Michael Caines of the Times Literary Supplement even went on to blog about his own concerns and methods for combatting the problem after it was revealed women made up less than a third of reviewers that year. He’s convinced that the inherent controversy of all-female publications, prizes and literary collectives can only be a force for good to “grab the media’s attention in a useful way.” 

In a world where it’s still possible to pick up a publication and find that every book review (and indeed every book reviewed) is written by a man yet “it’s seldom met by a corresponding imbalance in the other direction,” any publicity can only be good publicity. It’s precisely because of their intrinsic ability to divide opinions and garner accusations of (inverted) sexism that female-only platforms are such a profound necessity; they keep the conversation alive.

“It’s important that editors, literary prize judges, and the literary press really understand the industry’s historical failure to champion writing by women” observers Molly Taylor, co-founder of the female poetry magazine HotDog, but also that “they accept their own internalized prejudices so that they can begin to correct them.” It’s only by making the literary world aware of the problem that it’s ever going to be fixed. Projects like VIDA and all-female publications and presses are all part of making this significant lack in the literary world visible. 

Yet with the current vogue for all things “fem,” it’s possible for critics to maintain that through further segregating the work of men and women, publications and presses simply collude with the divide they wish to heal, capitalizing on the problem they profess to dissolve. By simply reporting on the problem, do such organizations simply remain on the same side? Pointing a metaphorical finger at a gender gap without actively helping it to heal? For Mslexia’s editor it’s a simple matter of the figures: “There’s a huge amount of research that shows that women in an all-female space feel more able to express themselves and perform better as a result.” Her observations are sobering: “These days, although women are far more likely to study literature than men, and read, buy and borrow far more books, and are more likely to attend writing courses and literary events—we are much less likely to submit our writing for publication, to be reviewed when we are published, and to win literary prizes.” 

She notes: “Publications with female editors, competitions with female judges, receive more submissions from women than when men are involved in the selection process.” It’s a problem that she sees as deeply rooted in the gender divide at large, the term Mslexia is one she coined herself, one she defines as a combination of the disabilities women writers face: “less time . . . less confidence . . . less respect.” The nature of the all-female space for her is to counter these disadvantages, providing validity to female experience that’s still neglected in the wider literary world. 

Although it’s clear that for some creating these platforms is a means of supporting fellow female writers, it’s not as if they feel an obligation to set up networks in order to publish other women. “The duty lies with those who already hold the power to ensure they are committed to publishing marginalized voices and covering as diverse a group of writers as possible” says Molly Taylor. When founding HotDog with Megan Conery the pair were initially hesitant: “At first we thought about having something like 80 percent women and 20 percent men to flip the current gender disparity on its head. But that didn’t feel right to us. So we opted to publish all women. And it’s been amazing!” Taylor adds “it pushes us to find new and exciting voices—voices that aren’t always visible in ‘traditional’ spaces.” For poetry in particular the challenge has been a struggle, “It’s so often a space in which women’s voices are undermined for being too emotional, too sexy and irrational. We wanted to bring women onto the stage, as it were, and make sure that they were able to be heard.” 

The author Anthony Burgess famously declared the literature that Virago was bringing to the table “too important to be associated with chauvinist sows.” In the end it all comes down to the work, in the words of Silver Press: “We just think these books are good and we want them to exist.” Highlighting the work of women means that mainstream editors have only to look to the pages of these magazines and presses to find a plethora of exciting female voices to take on—they can’t claim ignorance any more. The game has changed. 

One of the most recent additions to the growing scene of all-female publications and collectives that launched only a few weeks ago (like tender exclusively online) openly references Virago as a key influence, choosing the name Salomé after an archetypal “difficult” woman. “It is our words and strength of the all-female collective that gives us our power” says founder Jacquelyn Guderley. For her the literary world is litmus paper for the gender imbalance at large. When she’s not editing Salomé she’s working on Stemettes an organization she co-founded inspiring girls and young women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. A healthy reminder that the literary world’s gender problem is by no means unique, though it may be a crucial one in shaping the culture in which we live.

“The solitude of women’s minds is regrettable … it’s a waste to be separated from each other, without procedures, without tradition,” Lenù says in Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels. For the founders of Silver Press it’s “rewarding to be able to provide a space, through making books, for women to come together and form connections and have conversations.” “At this point in my life I am curious about women’s writing in a way that I am not as curious about men’s writing, maybe because I’ve read SO much male writing over the course of my life, imposed by the nature of our education system and the force of the western, white, cisgender male canon” notes HotDog’s Taylor. “We want to encourage other people to be excited about writing by women, so hopefully our enthusiasm is infectious.” It’s a trait that’s been noted by many other contemporary female authors, from Ferrante to Ariel Levy female friendship and feminine experience is being rewritten. 

Talking to Joanna Walsh, the founder of #ReadWomen, a hashtag founded in 2014 that’s amassed several million followers on twitter, she’s equally preoccupied with the typically “unseen” features of women in literature. For her latest publication Seed she chose to depict the neglected area of female adolescence and described her own experiences in a similar light: “Seed is a great big fuck you to all the history and lit I had to read that told me, as I was often told IRL at the time, that my experiences were worthless, shameful, trivial or embarrassing.” Encouraging women to read beyond the literary canon encourages women to write beyond it as well: “To have our struggles delineated allows us to participate in the description, ‘human.’”

These female literary magazines and collectives are organizations and communities that have been born out of a need, they are voices that deserve to be heard, a necessary force in an ongoing resistance, but also a symbol of how much more work has yet to be done for the literary world to ever solve its gender problem. These women are not only challenging the literary canon with all-female spaces; they’re rewriting it. 

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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