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#ReviewWomen2015: It's Time to Take Commercial Fiction Seriously

26/01/2015 15:08 GMT | Updated 27/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Last year, a campaign was started by writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh to get people reading more books by women. #ReadWomen2014 became a social media phenomenon and plentiful conversations ensued about why fiction by women tends to get such a raw deal.

When #ReadWomen launched, I wrote on here about how I hoped it would lead not just to people reading more books by women, but also reviewing them too. As we wait for VIDA's latest statistics on whether there's been an improvement in the past twelve months, the question still abounds as to why some books are deemed worthy of serious review by broadsheet newspapers and literary journals while others aren't.

Because whatever the statistics show us, there is a genre of fiction that rarely gets reviewed in any serious publication: and that's 'women's fiction.'

Now, as I made clear last year, I don't like the term 'women's fiction'. It's an unnecessary clarification that marginalises commercial novels by women. The books we're talking about are simply contemporary fiction that happen to be written by female authors. Books dealing with subjects that, if written by men, would be lauded as insightful and thought-provoking, but which in the hands of women are classed as 'domestic' or 'romantic'.

So when David Nicholls writes Us - a very funny and touching book about a disastrous family trip around Europe - it not only gets reviewed across the spectrum but is also longlisted for the Booker Prize. But when Jojo Moyes writes The One Plus One - also a funny and touching book about a family road trip - it doesn't garner a single broadsheet review, despite her phenomenal success with Me Before You. Which rather leaves one begging the question: Just what on earth does a commercial female writer need to do in order to be taken seriously?

A conversation with a former Editor of literary fiction went some way to explaining the prejudice. When I proposed that commercial fiction by women deserves a place in the review pages of broadsheet newspapers, she argued that 'serious' reviewers should be allowed to concentrate on "well-written books", not books that are "easy to read".

The argument that commercial women's fiction is "easy reading" is long-standing but no less absurdly spurious for it. Surely people understand that to write something "easy to read" is, in fact, very difficult. It takes craft to write a novel that zips along at a pace or that weaves you into an emotional world so deftly that you devour it in a single Sunday. And anyway, I'd argue that David Nicholl's Us or Edward St Aubyn's Lost for Words are "easy to read". They just happen to be written by men.

There is also, of course, the issue of how publishers package commercial novels by women, and the effect that has on both readers and reviewers. When my own novel came out last year, I asked a friend of a friend of a book reviewer if there might be any chance of slipping my debut onto their reading pile. The answer that came back?

Not if there's any pink on the cover. I don't do pink covers.
There's very little most authors can do about their book jackets: but one wonders whether reviewers shouldn't have learned by now not to judge a book by its cover?

Commercial fiction by women is now the only category of fiction that isn't reviewed by serious publications. Crime, psychological thrillers, science fiction and fantasy will all be found on the review pages of the broadsheets. But no novels by Jojo Moyes or Lisa Jewell, Sophie Kinsella or Adele Parks.

Do serious publications genuinely believe there's no literary merit worth discussing in commercial fiction by women? That there's nothing interesting to say about the subjects they deal with? Do they believe that the hundreds of thousands of people who read these authors - the same people, of course, who read their newspapers - have got it wrong about the books they think are worthy of their time? Or do these publications simply not care about servicing female readers who happen to have wide-ranging tastes?

The question, of course, is can we change these attitudes? And, if so, how?

Since 2014 was the year of #ReadWomen, I propose we make 2015 the year of #ReviewWomen. There are plenty of conversations between authors, publishers, bloggers and readers about how we can encourage reviewers to take commercial fiction by women more seriously. This year, let's have that conversation collectively. Let's have it visibly. And let's have it noisily.

Every time you review a book by a female writer - whatever the genre - whether on social media, on your blog, in your local or national newspaper, use the #ReviewWomen2015 hashtag. Let's make this the year fiction by women gets reviewed - everywhere, across the spectrum - more than ever before.

Let's see if we can finally get commercial fiction by women taken seriously by serious publications.

So come on broadsheet newspapers and literary journals: join the #ReviewWomen2015 campaign. You never know - you might even find you enjoy it.