by The Women's Blog)
It's a truth universally acknowledged that, although women read more than men, and books by female authors are published in roughly the same numbers, they are more easily overlooked. Their marginalisation by top literary journals, both as reviewers and the reviewed, is confirmed in a yearly count by the organisation Vida: Women in Literary Arts.
Perhaps the problem lies not with whether women are published, but how. Lionel Shriver complained when her "nasty book" Game Control was given a "girly cover", and I've listened to female writer friends grouse when their books are given flowery covers though their writing is not; when reviews, or even their publishers' press releases, describe their work as "delicate" when it is forthright, "delightful" when it is satirical, "carving a niche" when it is staking a claim. Had Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, considered that when he responded to the first Vida count in 2011 by saying: "We know [women] are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS"?
"My own feeling," said Claire Armitstead, the Guardian's literary editor, "is that there is an issue of confidence among women writers." Yet the female authors I know are bold and ambitious; I'm not sure the issue lies with them. In 2011, Stothard said: "We take [equality] pretty seriously." Everyone wants change, but is reluctant to make a change. As readers, perhaps we should take a little responsibility: after all, the buck stops with the book buyer.
I started the Twitter hashtag #readwomen2014 after drawing some bookmark-shaped New Year's cards showing some of my favourite female writers. I had been inspired by two literary journalists – both male, as it happens – who didn't want to show up on the wrong side of this year's Vida pie chart (coming out next month) and were willing to do something about it. Jonathan Gibbs in the UK and Matthew Jakubowski in the US both made a commitment to read only female authors for a set period. When I posted photos of my cards on Twitter, a few people asked me to tweet the 250-odd names of female writers I had typed on the back.
I worried that tweeting the names might seem polemical, even boring. After Caroline Criado-Perez's experience of cyber bullying during her campaign to have Jane Austen appear on the £10 note, I was also a little nervous. But, within minutes, women – and men – were adding their own favourites to the list. The meme was passed on until the list of names doubled, then trebled. This was something people cared about. It also felt as if they were having a lot of fun.
It has been exciting to see some of the ways the hashtag has been used: as a personal incentive; a rallying cry; a celebration of recent achievements (2013 prizes for Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Eleanor Catton and more) and of authors who should be better known. It has been used to discuss women's writing, and to link up "read women" projects around the world.
I had no inkling #readwomen2014 would become so successful, but revolutions start small. You don't have to exclusively read books by women this year (you may be surprised to learn that I won't be doing so), but you might like to do a Vida count on your own bookshelf; if you find an imbalance, consider whether you might have been a victim of inequality, missing out on good writing because of a pink dust jacket. Just for a change, make sure the next book you read is by a woman. While female writers may encounter similar obstacles, their work is diverse as men's: there is a book by a woman for every kind of reader.
• Joanna Walsh is a writer and illustrator and is @badaude on Twitter. The cards can be seen at her website, badaude.typepad.com.