Female writers dominated 2017’s literary bestsellers, figures show
Flying in the face of Norman Mailer’s infamous comment that “a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls”, Haruki Murakami was the sole male writer to make the Top 10 bestselling literary authors of 2017 in the UK.
The Bookseller’s analysis of literary fiction book sales last year found that Margaret Atwood was the bestselling literary novelist of the year, with television adaptations of her novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace pushing her sales up to almost £2.8m.
Sarah Perry, author of the award-winning The Essex Serpent, came in second with sales of around £1.6m. Helen Dunmore, who died last June but had a novel, The Birdcage Walk, and poetry collection, Inside the Wave, published in 2017, came in third, with sales of around £1.1m. The rest of the top five were Naomi Alderman, whose novel The Power won the Women’s prize for fiction, and Italian author Elena Ferrante, author of the acclaimed Neapolitan series.
Murakami, with sales of around £1m, came sixth, with the list completed by Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Maggie O’Farrell and Arundhati Roy.
The Bookseller’s Tom Tivnan admitted that the analysts were “making somewhat arbitrary value judgments about what is ‘literary’, and have limited ourselves to those who have been major award winners and/or shortlistees”. But he pointed out that both Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan failed to make the Top 10, each bringing in sales worth £855,000, along with the new Nobel literature laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, whose books made just over £709,000 in 2017.
Speaking on Wednesday, after just one publisher, the independent press And Other Stories, answered her call to publish only women in 2018, Shamsie said: “The list of writers on [the Bookseller’s] list is a reminder that literary fiction’s most beloved women writers are second to no one in terms of the quality of their work.”
But Shamsie, whose novel Home Fire was longlisted for the Man Booker prize and shortlisted for the Costa prize, added that “the list also underscores the bias at play when prize submissions, book recommendations by other writers, and reviews of literary fiction are so skewed towards men. That skewing isn’t about quality, or about the opinions of the reading public – it’s about gender bias that treats male writers as more ‘serious’, even if women writers are more popular among the (largely female) readership for fiction.”
According to a report from Arts Council England late last year, print sales of literary fiction have plummeted over the last decades, with few writers able to support themselves through literary fiction alone.
Despite women writers’ strong performance in literary fiction, they take up less than half of the slots in the Bookseller’s overall UK Top 50 bestselling authors of 2017. That list was topped by David Walliams for the first time, with just three women writers making the Top 10: JK Rowling, Julia Donaldson, and Fiona Watt, author of the That’s Not My … board book series for children. The list is made up of an eclectic mix of genres, with chef Jamie Oliver, thriller authors Lee Child and James Patterson, health guru Joe Wicks and children’s writers Jeff Kinney and Philip Pullman rounding out the ranking.