Work Hard

Celebrating 100 editions of Mslexia

Founder Debbie Taylor on challenging the barriers to women’s creativity as the North East’s ground-breaking writing magazine celebrates its 100th edition.

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 16.12.2023

Just under 30 years ago, Debbie Taylor set off on a solo trip around the world to research a non-fiction book about single mothers.

She was neither single nor a mother herself at the time. For four years prior, Debbie had been trying for a baby with her husband, poet and Newcastle University professor WN Herbert. After three miscarriages and two failed IVF attempts, and they gave up trying.

As a novelist and journalist, the round-the-world trip didn’t only give Debbie plenty of literary inspiration. It also gave her the opportunity to undergo traditional infertility treatments in China, Uganda, Brazil and India.

Her daughter, Issie, was conceived on the day she returned to the UK.

AND SO IT BEGINS…

It was a happy ending to a tough chapter in Debbie’s life. But the miracle of childbirth was followed by a challenge that, as a writer, threatened Debbie’s whole way of life: an imbalance in the expectations of childcare.

‘When I gave birth to my daughter, I realised that I was a writer who suddenly had no time to write,’ she tells us. ‘And I realised that other women writers with children were probably experiencing the same frustrations I was – and that this was having a serious effect on our literary careers.

‘I did some research and discovered that I was right. Although girls talk, read and write earlier than boys, on average, and women massively outnumber men on English literature and creative writing courses, books by men dominated all the literary prize lists and reviews pages, and most of the top jobs in publishing were occupied by men.’

This revelation prompted a decision that not only changed the course of Debbie’s life, but the shape of the North East’s literary landscape forever. She decided to start Mslexia magazine.

MSLEXIA

‘Mslexia is a made-up word to describe the mismatch between women’s abilities as writers and their actual literary achievements,’ Debbie explains.

‘In the launch edition of the magazine in 1999, I identified three causes of “mslexia”. The first and most obvious problem was lack of time, which was what got me fired up in the first place. But sexism in the publishing industry was also a factor, along with a resulting lack of confidence, experienced by many woman writers, that their work was any good.’

In Debbie’s own words, the purpose of the magazine was ‘first and foremost, to highlight these three factors that were holding women back so that we could start to challenge them.’

Now, 25 years later and celebrating the milestone of its 100th edition, Mslexia is the certified white knight of women’s writing, not only here in the North but across the UK.

A quarterly masterclass in the business and psychology of writing, the magazine is read by everyone from top authors and publishers to absolute beginners and includes expert advice, information about publishing trends and opportunities, and inspiration in bucketloads.

It provides a unique space where women writers can put their work in front of editors and publishers on the lookout for fresh talent – whether they are already household names or are just starting out on their authorial careers.

And with 20 different ways to submit work to the magazine– for fiction writers and poets, journalists and memoirists – and 90 women published in every edition, Mslexia has carved out its niche as one of the biggest supporting forces to women writers in Britain.

‘I think we have made a difference – at least for the 28,000 women writers who have subscribed to the magazine, and the 6,140 we’ve published,’ says Debbie.

‘Lack of time is still a major impediment in most women writers’ lives, but our recent survey of 2,349 writers to mark our 100th edition reveals that 62% felt more confident about their writing compared to 10 years ago, and 39% felt there were more opportunities for publication.

‘We’ll never know exactly how many women have taken the first steps on their literary careers in the pages of Mslexia, but I’m proud to claim – because they’ve told us – that we’re often the first place they try when they start submitting their work.’

CHANGES AND CHOICES

With so much to celebrate, it would be easy to think the road to success has been a smooth one for Debbie and Mslexia over this last quarter of a century. So, what, if anything, would she have done differently?

‘So many things!’ she laughs. ‘I wouldn’t have served cocktails at our first board meeting, that’s for sure…

‘I wouldn’t have tried to move house between Issue 1 and Issue 2. I would have checked how much our print and design costs would increase before I upped the number of pages in the launch magazine.

‘I’d worked as a co-editor on two magazines before I started Mslexia, but this was the first time I’d tried to manage a publishing company. It was a pretty steep learning curve!’

One of the many things Debbie certainly got right was connecting Mslexia with Northern Arts – now part of Arts Council England – which had funded the magazine since its conception. The collaboration was part of Northern Arts’ visionary strategic funding of literature to help develop the literary community in the region, and meant that many of Mslexia’s earliest columnists and contributors lived locally.

It also instilled a desire within Debbie to support the independent publishing sector in her own way. Alongside its 100th edition, Mslexia has just published the 4th Edition of their Indie Press Guide, which offers a unique and comprehensive guide to independent literary magazines and book publishers in the UK and Republic of Ireland.

SUPPORTING WOMEN WRITERS INTO 2024

But its raison d’être remains Mslexia’s commitment to helping women writers break down the barriers to their creativity. And it’s a key part of their strategy going into a new year.

‘Women’s lack of time is such a stubborn issue because equality legislation doesn’t reach into the home, where the gendered imbalances in childcare, adult care and housework occur,’ Debbie explains.

‘Mslexia can’t address these issues directly – that’s between women and their partners – but we do analyse their impact on women’s literary achievements, and our Writer’s Diary & Planner 2024 includes life hacks and strategies to help women prioritise their creative time.

‘Even when we do have a bit of spare time, we often feel we’re too tired to write. Yet our research tells us that the act of writing can itself be an energising force, that makes sense of our world and helps us prioritise the things that are important to us.

‘Mslexia also runs free workshops on time management in the Mslexia Salon, an online forum where magazine subscribers can take advantage of weekly write ins and fortnightly writing surgeries and workshops – as well as our famous Agent Extravaganza events, where novelists and memoir writers can pitch their manuscripts directly to literary agents looking for fresh voices.’

A FOURTH WAVE OF FEMINISM

While women are proving successful in their fight to gain equality in the publishing sector, there’s remains a way to go before the scales are fully balanced.

What direction, we wondered, would Debbie love to see the local, national and international literary scene move in now, going forwards, to achieve equality?

‘In the 100th edition of the magazine, I called for a “fourth wave” of feminism that would address caring inequality in the home, ageism that affects women more than men, and the toxic online environment that tries to silence women whenever they put their heads above the parapet,’ she tells us. ‘These are all issues that seriously affect women’s opportunities and motivation to fulfil their potential as writers.

‘In terms of the literary scene, this needs to translate into an awareness that women’s writing lives are repeatedly interrupted by caring responsibilities, and that many are not free to produce their best work until their 40’s, 50s, 60s and beyond. This means that any age-limited grant, award, prize, opportunity, automatically discriminates against women.

‘With women increasingly taking on senior roles in publishing, it would be good to see that sector also taking the lead in enlightened employment practices that support women in part- and full-time roles to allow them to continue working, and being promoted, right up to retirement. This might help ameliorate ageism in publishing and marketing decisions.’

AND NOW FOR THE QUICK-FIRE QS…

Who are 3 of your favourite writers right now?

Katherine Heiny, Val McDermid and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy – but that will change next week when someone else is on my bedside table!

What’s one book you think everyone should read at some point in their lives?

That’s such a hard one. I’ll say The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, because it was so important to me at a very particular time of my life. But I haven’t reread it for years, so I’m not sure what I’d make of it now.

If you could only give one piece of advice to all aspiring women writers, what would it be?

Do it now! Don’t assume you’ll have more time at some point in the future. That time may never come. Try to make some space in your life right now to build a regular writing practise, even if it’s just 30 minutes a day.

 

To read the latest work and thoughts from the Who’s Who of women’s literature, to submit your own writing and to enjoy all the added perks of the Mslexia community – like writing surgeries, Q&As and cutting-edge research – subscribe to Mslexia

 

Digital subscription for one year is £19.99

Print subscription for one year is £24.75

 

Image credit: Chris Owens

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