Books About Women Don't Win Major Fiction Prizes. How Can We Change That?

06/02/2015 08:46 am ET | Updated Jun 11, 2015
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Man, woman, cyborg -- no matter what kind of writer you are, if you want to win a major literary award, there’s just one thing you have to do: Make sure your main character is a man.

Okay, it still helps to be a man, writing about men, but a woman writing about men will fare far better than a woman writing about women, at least if she wants to be a contender for awards such as the Pulitzer for fiction or the Man Booker Prize. Nicola Griffith, the acclaimed author of Hild and Ammonite, recently broke down the last 15 years of major fiction prize-winners by the gender of the author and the main character, and the resulting pie charts are pretty startling.

Griffith organized the books into several categories: by men about men, by women about women, by men about women, by women about men, by each gender about both, and unsure. In one case, the Newbery Medal for children's books, women writing about women dominated. In every other award, men writing about men carried the day. Women writing about men or both, and men writing about both, also received reasonable percentages, while books focused on women are nearly absent from the ranks of winners.


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As the VIDA count has effectively demonstrated over the past few years, apparent gains in gender equality in the literary arena may be blinding us to the more persistent imbalances. Though women are major consumers and creators of fiction, and select women such as Joan Didion, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison have achieved iconic status in the field, women’s stories and voices are still more rarely celebrated than men's as the finest literature has to offer. Women authors are dogged by insinuations of unseriousness and by gauzy, chick-lit covers that set them apart from their male counterparts.

“My first novel was published in 1993 and I noticed it wasn't treated the same ways as books by peers: different treatment at all levels of the publishing process,” explained Griffith in an email to The Huffington Post. It wasn’t until now, however, that her attempts to blog about the disparity really took off. “I will never again underestimate the power of brightly-coloured graphics!” she joked.

It’s all too easy to dismiss the question of major literary prizewinners as small potatoes -- there are only a few major fiction awards every year, so the vast majority of writers aren’t directly affected by the decisions. But the ripple effect is strong, Griffith argues. “The big prizes matter. They are signposts. They point to what we should be paying attention to ... Lists are history.” And on a more practical note, she pointed out, “there's the instant publicity.” Literary fiction writers often struggle in the commercial market, but winning a Pulitzer or Man Booker Prize can instantly boost sales to sky-high rates.

A thornier question: How can this imbalance be rectified?

The question of women’s-only literary prizes recently resurfaced, as it periodically does. This time, in the New York Times’ Bookends column, in which Zoë Heller and Dana Stevens pondered the question: Does an award like the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction help or hurt women writers? Both authors supported these prizes, but with clear reservations, and Stevens’ concerns seem particularly apropros. “A small part of me fears that the gated-off arena can too easily become a prison,” she wrote.

The existence of a prize solely for women writers is both boon and bane to writers who happen to be women. It allows them to compete for recognition outside of the larger arena where prejudice favoring male writers and subject tend to overshadow female art; it also crystallizes a sense of women writers as other, as a separate category with potentially different standards. Plus, it fosters a sense that female representation has been fixed -- a woman doesn’t need to win the Man Booker Prize, when one is bound to win the Bailey’s! -- possibly lessening motivation to ensure women are treated as equal contestants in the broader field.

Griffith isn’t turning her back on the Bailey's Prize, though, saying, “It's an addition, not a silo. A good addition.” She advocates more data, like the VIDA count, to uncover these inequities; in a follow-up article she notes, as well, that "It’s not just gender diversity that needs fixing, of course," referring readers to Malinda Lo's articles on diversity in Y.A.

To really make progress toward a better world for women and minority writers, she said, we should devote ourselves to fixing “the bias at the foundation of our culture.” A tall order, but for some things, there are no shortcuts.

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