Rose Bretécher: my experience of sexism in the publishing industry
12th Nov 2014
Falling in love
Books mean freedom. Read by torchlight under floral duvets or pressed to thumping chests they make small worlds big, big dreams real.
As a teenager my heart ached for Maya Angelou and Sylvia Plath – my inner life’s miners, carving out space for new thoughts and ideas. The unseen and the unheard, the lonely and the queer, in books they could be heroes, and for me there was something fantastically subversive about that.
So when I was offered representation by a literary agent many years later, I felt connected in a small way to something meaningful; humbled by the chance to contribute to a tradition which had given me so much. I thought I was onto something with my book idea – a comic memoir about my life with intrusive sexual thoughts.
I’d seldom seen mental illness treated in a humorous way and the prospect of trying to make something funny out of something dark was irresistible. Vulgarity was a linguistic playground of plosive ballbags and sibilant minges, and I wanted to play there.
I had big things to say about mental health and sexuality, things which had ached my heart and had me shouting at the sky, and I wanted to say them with a bit of levity.
As far as I knew my book was unprecedented. I figured this was a good thing, as almost all literary agents and publishers say they’re looking for unique stories and unheard voices.
I was cautiously optimistic about getting a deal, too, as I’d recently published an extract in The Guardian and the feedback had been encouraging. My agent sent off my manuscript and I put the champagne in the fridge to chill.
But my optimism was fleeting and I quickly rued it, as I’d once rued my fleeting teenage enthusiasm for hair mascara.
The rejections from publishers came pouring back, all saying the same thing – they didn’t know how to place my book. Suddenly a lack of precedent didn’t seem like such a bonus.
One editor thought my desire to market this book at all genders was unrealistic – apparently men just don’t do memoirs written by women. It sounded like turd to me, but when important people say such things, you listen. When The Spice Girls told me hair mascara was cool, I trusted them implicitly.
It was even suggested that my appearance could be ‘problematic’, because alongside lilac and curlicues and call girls and confessions, blonde hair and red lipstick are symbols in an established visual language, and they communicated a very specific version of femaleness.
The implication was sobering: a literary book from such a writer would be a head fuck for the herds, and if I wasn’t prepared to publish within genre I would struggle to publish at all.
One major newspaper’s editorial flourish was particularly howling. Directly beneath a mental health article I’d written were listed three ‘promoted stories’: a picture of a woman’s naked buttocks with the headline: ‘Getting to the bottom of an enduring appeal’; a photo of a Miley Cyrus, tits out; and four large-breasted women modelling ‘nude’ underwear.’
So I couldn’t write for men, who’d be uninterested in my story, and I couldn’t write for women, who’d need more overtly feminine visual cues to lure them to my work. But the sexual content of my writing could still used be as click bait in the sexualisation of other women – the same one-sided sexualisation which hemmed in my writing in the first place.
Talk about getting the bottom of it.
For much of mainstream publishing, the bottom is this: unique stories and unheard female voices count for little unless there’s an immediately apparent narrow category in which to place them. Having essentially been reduced to an ass pun, I took the champagne out of the fridge, unopened.
The big publishing houses have given us scores of life changing books by women, and towering talents are still breaking through. But not enough. It is time to call bullshit on the notion meted out by the industry that their marketing reflects our attitudes rather than creates them.
Right now they’re packaging the status quo as something we asked for. We didn’t.
Traditional publishing is a DJ who can’t mix and doesn’t take requests. Occasionally he drops a banger like Jeanette Winterson or Caitlin Moran and the crowd goes wild, but most of his set is predictable and tired, and the only reason people dance to the music is because it’s there.
I work in advertising, where brands are beginning to understand the commercial value of social issues like sexuality and gender equality. I find that thrilling.
Underpinning bold and exciting new content strategies is a telling statistic: women make 80% of the purchase decisions in this country. Progressive publishers will harness that power by diversifying their offering. The others will stick with Agadoo.
Media bias. Binary gendering. Conformist design. These were not concepts I understood when I fell in love with literature.
Back then I believed that books, more than any other medium, could give voice to women who wanted to write on their own terms, however sexually frank or mentally ill. But now I worry that the revolutionary power of the page is being threatened by excuses and obtuseness, by the gross misuse of market might.
Books mean freedom. Why does it feel like traditional publishers have forgotten that?
Rose Bretécher is in the final stages of crowd-funding her memoir Pure – you can claim your copy of the book and get tickets to the launch party at Unbound.
Have you experienced sexism when pitching or publishing your writing? Leave us a comment and let us know.