Barry Pierce investigates the representation of female writers in Cork’s biggest bookshops.
My bookshelves present a past life. If I were to do a census of my shelves I already know what the result would be. Volumes upon volumes of men. My bookshelves embarrass me now. A couple of years ago my only criteria for buying a book was whether the blurb sounded good or not. I’d walk into bookshops and wait for something to catch my eye. More likely than not I’d end up buying something from those sales tables, you know the ones that you practically have to navigate through in Waterstones or Easons?
The fact that my bookshelves are the literary equivalent of The LAD Bible’s userbase is mostly my own fault, but there must have been other factors. This got me thinking about those tables. All three of Cork’s major bookshops use them, Waterstones, Easons and Vibes and Scribes. In an effort towards equality you’d think that these tables would present 50% men and 50% women, I mean they are all personally curated and finding a balance would be an easy task. Right?
Last month, I decided to gather my evidence. Starting off in Waterstones on Patrick Street, then onto Vibes and Scribes on Lavitts Quay and finishing in Easons on Patrick Street. Entering Waterstones you’re immediately met with two large tables, mostly consisting of newly published works. Over those two tables there were 56 unique books, 38 of them were written by men and 18 were written by women (32% overall). It already didn’t look good.
Smaller tables are riddled around this Waterstones, which all display 35 books each. There’s a “books in translation” table on which 7 of the 35 books (20%) were written by women. Two more fiction tables have 7/35 (20%) and 19/35 (54%). I must note that the table which had 19/35 was the only table on my whole search which had more women than men. Another table which claims to be curated by someone named Eamonn had 8/35 or 23%.
The entire fiction section presented a sad reality. Maybe other genres would be better represented? Hardly. Scifi/fantasy had 5/35 (14%) and, rather shockingly, sports had only 2 books out of the 35 that were penned by women. Overall, I examined 266 books in Waterstones and only 66 of them were written by women. That means that roughly a quarter of the books on the main tables in Waterstones are written by women.
Disheartened by my trip to Waterstones, I decided to take the short walk to Vibes and Scribes on Lavitts Quay. Since I focused on fiction in Waterstones I decided to keep to that genre in here. Two massive tables presented themselves to me in Vibes and Scribes. One table containing 38 books and another with 63. Both tables are quite scattered and seemingly random so counting their content was quite the task. On the table with 38 books only 2 were written by women. The table with 63 had 9 books by women. Of the 101 books over those two tables only 11 were penned by women. This was the worst result. I knew there was going to be a discrepancy between men and women in all of the bookshops but Vibes genuinely shocked me. I left there hastily and I doubt I’ll ever enter those doors ever again.
Eason’s only had one main table focused on fiction. 44 books of which 16 (36%) were written by women. Once again, I wasn’t surprised. Given the results of the previous bookshops I wasn’t expecting much. I finished my research wishing I hadn’t begun. In the age of #WakingTheFeminists and the practical Renaissance of Irish women’s writing that is happening at the moment, Cork’s bookshops are still lagging behind in their representation of women writers.
Since I was already in Eason’s I thought I might as well do some browsing. In my perusal I came across an interesting title, The Books That Define Ireland by Bryan Fanning and Tom Garvin. The book goes through thirty books that have in some way defined or influenced Irish culture, according to the authors anyway. A quick glance at the contents shows that four of the thirty books were written by women. I couldn’t help but laugh.
My whole journey was there in front of me, confirmed by Fanning and Garvin. I put the book back on the shelf, smiled at the woman behind the counter, and walked out onto Patrick Street.