When the American Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout lamented women’s domination of the fiction market at the weekend, she soon found herself the victim of a Twitter pile-on.

‘God, what ignorant quotes from Strout,’ said one post. ‘It’s made me think I’ll never read any more of her novels,’ ran another. While a third asked: ‘Is she one of those women who likes closing the door behind her rather than helping lift other women?’

Strout, 65, author, of bestsellers like My Name Is Lucy Barton was making a very good point. However, few people in the incestuous worlds of publishing are brave enough make it.

To wit, most fiction editors — the people who have the power to buy up manuscripts — are white, middle-class, Left-leaning women.

‘These women . . . are good at their jobs,’ said Strout, ‘but do I think that it’s a good thing? I think that it makes it too narrow.’

Wolf Hall, starring Ben Miles (L) as Thomas Cromwell, Lydia Leonard (R) as Anne Boleyn at Stratford Upon Avon

Wolf Hall, starring Ben Miles, Thomas Cromwell, Lydia Leonard, Anne Boleyn at Stratford Upon Avon (R),

Daisy Edgar-Jones (R) as Marianne and Paul Mescal (L) as Connell in the BBC Three adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People

Daisy Edgar-Jones (R), as Marianne, and Paul Mescal as Connell in the BBC Three version of Sally Rooney’s Normal People

American Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout (Pictured) lamented women’s domination of the fiction market at the weekend

American Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Elizabeth Strout (Pictured) lamented women’s domination of the fiction market at the weekend

These new breeds are more likely to commission works from authors who share their cultural and political views.

The result is that last year female writers accounted for 57 per cent of hardback fiction bestsellers and 62 per cent of paperbacks — and no men were shortlisted for the Costa First Novel prize, which is worth £30,000 to the winner.

What’s more, the current stars of literary fiction are all female: Irish-born Sally Rooney, whose third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You was released last month to huge fanfare; Sorrow And Bliss author Meg Mason, a New Zealander; and American Brit Bennett, who wrote the acclaimed The Vanishing Half.

Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), E.L. James (“Fifty Shades Of Grey”) are still the queens of the blockbuster.

You could be forgiven if you think this is a strange place to highlight the ascent these literary Amazons. The top three fiction bestseller spots are currently held by male authors Richard Osman John Le Carre Jeffrey Archer.

These men are an exception to the rule. It is true that male novelists are rare and far between. There are, in Britain, no obvious successors to the famous quartet of Martin Amis (Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie)

They are now all in their 70s but they had established distinguished careers before they were 50.

The U.S. has the same problem. Jonathan Franzen seems to be the sole flagbearer for the area once occupied Saul Bellow. Norman Mailer. Philip Roth.

No wonder the former Booker Prize winner John Banville, 75, recently bemoaned ‘this current suspicion about white straight men’, and added: ‘I would not like to be starting out now, certainly. It’s very difficult.’

My favorite modern bloke lit 

  • Douglas Stuart: Won last year’s Booker Prize with Shuggie Bain, inspired by his relationship with his mother and her struggles against alcoholism.
  • Max Porter: Wrote “Grief Is the Thing With Feathers”, a combination of prose & poetry that was translated into 27 languages. Two more novels were also published, all critically acclaimed.
  • Sam Byers: Sam Byers is a graduate of the University of East Anglia’s creative writing program. His debut novel Idiopathy won The Betty Trask Award for first novels under 35 years old.
  • Ross Raisin: A former Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year whose novels include God’s Own Country, Waterline and A Natural.
  • James Scudamore: Author of four novels, the most recent of which, English Monsters, was described as ‘dark, tender, and troubling’ by fellow writer Edward Docx. 

We are witnessing a trend that is starting to look irreversible. The growing feminization of the fiction market can be traced back at childhood habits. Girls are generally more open to reading than boys, which has been proven repeatedly. Yes, there are writers who can get boys to pick up a book — David ‘Gangsta Granny’ Walliams, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney, and Cherub series creator Robert Muchamore — but they are few and far between. Reading is a habit that lasts well into adulthood. According to estimates, around 80 percent of fiction readers are women. A YouGov poll from last year found that more women than men read fiction every day (27% versus 13%). The men who read fiction are almost twice as likely to be men than women (22 percent versus 12%) and 42% of women prefer fiction to nonfiction.

Reading is the best form of writing, as any novelist can tell you. This vicious circle is created when there are fewer men who read novels.

Many stories are published about how the status-quo has changed.

Take the case of the critically acclaimed and commercially successful crime novelist who was told by the head of a major U.S. publishing company that ‘we’re going to take a break from white, male novelists for a while’.

Or the London literary agent who no longer even bothers to send manuscripts written by authors of that same white male demographic to certain editors because he knows they simply won’t be accepted.

I’ve had my own experience of the new paradigm. I submitted my novel The Law Of The Heart. It is a love story set North Korea. I met several publishing houses that loved it, but were wary about a white Englishman making Pyongyang girls the protagonists.

Publishing is a small industry where everyone knows everyone else, so few people want to go on the record about these kind of stories — it would be more than their careers and reputations would be worth, especially at a time when ‘cancel culture’ is an issue that’s very much on publishers’ minds.

Writing is not the end of the problem for some writers. Publishing has three faultlines: gender (class), colour (color).

If white male novelists feel excluded, this is made much worse if they’re working class, too.

A 2020 Northumbria University study concluded that writers from working class backgrounds are at many disadvantages. These include a lack in support networks, lower self-confidence, and a lack industry-wide of social diversity.

Even more marginalized are writers of color. A 2019 study by the Authors’ Licensing And Collecting Society found that 94 per cent of authors are white, despite the fact that white people make up only 87 per cent of the population.

And it’s not as simple as male novelists being rejected en masse: indeed, there are plenty of reasons why male writers will choose not even to put themselves forward for consideration in the first place.

For most people, writing is a vast amount of work for a paltry income — a 2018 Glasgow University study put writers’ average earnings at £10,497 per annum. Unfortunately, only a small minority of people believe that writers can relax on Caribbean beaches waiting for the muse, before making great advances. (There is a beach near me, but it’s on the Jurassic Coast.)

Men are less likely than women to accept low advances if they could earn more elsewhere. Publishers receive more submissions by women than from men. Men who submit manuscripts are often older, more financially secure, or on their second career.

The good news is that there are plenty of male writers out there, it’s just that they’re working in a different genre. Many young men watch far more television and films than they read books, and so it’s not surprising that they often gravitate to screenwriting instead.

My own experiences of writing for film and TV have been that it’s as much a male environment as publishing is a female environment.

Long-form TV — high-quality drama series which run for several seasons, such as Line Of Duty, The Wire and The Sopranos — has to some extent taken the place of the novel. If Charles Dickens — with his vast canvases of urban squalor, panoply of memorable characters and penchant for cliffhangers — were around today would he be tapping out novels at a laptop in a coffee shop?

No, he’d be a showrunner on a prestigious TV show, marshalling a roomful of writers. Why risk solitude, rejection and penury when you could be Succession supremo Jesse Armstrong, Doctor Who head honchos Chris Chibnall and Russell T. Davies, or — of course — Line Of Duty creator Jed Mercurio?

The white male writers are still around. They’re just not writing novels so much any more.

  • Boris Starling is a journalist, screenwriter, and author. Lake Union published his latest novel, The Law Of The Heart.