Friday, 17 June 2011


Here's another worm from the can opened by V(ery) S(exist) Naipaul. A Guardian columnist, Bidisha, has weighed in with an interesting if very angry piece.

She has collected the statistics on how relatively few women are shortlisted for major literary awards. I suggest you click though, but if not, here's the nub of it:
This year’s Dolman travel writing book prize has longlisted 8 men and 2 women. The previous year the shortlist was 6 men and 1 woman. The Walter Scott prize for historical fiction has shortlisted 5 men and 1 woman this year. There were double that number of women on the shortlist last year: 2. One of them, Hilary Mantel, won. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has returned a shortlist of 5 men and 1 woman every single year for the last five years. In 2006 it went totally mad and had 2 women and 4 men! Since 2001, the IMPAC prize has had 11 men winners and 0 women. The Samuel Johnson prize has a 2011 longlist of 15 books by men, 1 co-authored by a mixed pair and 2 books by women. In the previous 12 years it has had shortlists of 5 men and just 1 woman 7 times. In 2009 it was 6 men and no women. It has been 4 men and 2 women three times. In 2003 they had their year of insanity: 3 men, 3 women. The Ondaatje Prize has honoured 7 men and 1 woman.

I already knew this about ratios for reviewing (my post on the Vida count), but didn't about prizes. Of course, this could simply indicate that women are just not writing very good books; but it seems unlikely.

In this connection, the column also points out that as consumers, men tend very markedly not to buy books by women. This obviously has a big impact on sales figures for female authors, but I also wonder what this reluctance to engage with women's work means in terms of the gender make-up of reviewing and awarding bodies?

Honestly, given the choice, I would totally rather have been born a boy. I can't be bothered with all this.

I was led to this link by Annie Holmes, whose book you may be interested in, by the way, Zimbawean readers, being verbatim stories of life in Zim. I've heard only fabulous things.


  1. Oh goodness, I think it is all insanity and craziness but I'm still quite happy to be a girl :D I recently read an interesting book called How to Suppress Women's Writing that talked about how women's writing is kept less popular than men's in a large number of different ways. The biggest one that seems to be so relevant in all these discussions is that we discount women's experiences and values as less important - sports is 'more important' than childbirth or, for example. In this way works by women can be relegated to 'only important to women'. And we seem to buy into this hugely. Men avoid the books, and even women on the prize judging panels have bought into it and think they are 'less important'. Clearly discounting the lived experiences and values of half the population means that the prized literature we have is not at all representative of any group of people!

  2. That is really interesting, Amy, thanks for that. I must look up that book! Did you ever blog it? I dont recall having seen it on your blog. I do totally think that subject matter is important - or how subject matter is viewed. Someone pointed out to me that 'becoming a man' can sound like an important sujbect, but 'becoming a woman' sounds like you are just going to talk about your periods. I also thought the whole Franzenfreude debate was BRILLIANT in that way, highlighting that it is a book about a family, and if it had been written by a woman would be seen as a domestic drama, but because it's by a man is seen as being about all of America.

  3. I did blog about it actually :) Right here:

    I really liked it though one friend at least has tried it since and isn't loving it nearly as much as I did sadly. I'm hoping that others enjoy it more!

    Also, I completely agree with you on that debate being fantastic for pointing out that very thing. Even when men and women write about the same things it gets classified differently. I really wish there was an easy answer to how to fix this but I, sadly, have nothing. Other than talking about it like we all are and trying to get more people thinking about it. We have to get to the point where, as with your example, 'becoming a woman' is seen as being as important as 'becoming a man'!

  4. Interesting figures out there. I am of the opinion that as a writer you need not write for awards or wait for some people on some team to say you are good, you write well... take this award. Awards are as political and manipulative as anything else. How many Africans or even (currently) Americans have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Guess you can count the number of women on your fingertips... Awards are what they are... not a rubber stamp on your accomplishments. This is judged by posterity.

    And by the way I have already read and reviewed Tendai Huchu's The Hairdresser of Harare. He sent it to me after I interviewed him. Links here:

  5. Wonderful post, Sarah! There does seem to be a tendency with many male readers to avoid books written by women writers. I was talking to one of my friends recently whose literary taste I highly respect, and I was surprised when he said that he rarely reads books by women writers - less than 10% of the books that he read. When I asked why, he said that he doesn't find the kind of topics that women writers write about, interesting. I was quite shocked! Because women writers write about every conceivable topic. I don't consciously try to read a particular ratio of men or women writers like some readers do, but I always read a book if I find the premise interesting, irrespective of the gender of the writer. I love essays and my favourite essayist is Anne Fadiman and I don't think any male essayist can come near her. As far as Naipaul is concerned, I hope he was drunk when he said whatever he said. If he was sober, I think he sinks even more in readers' esteem.

  6. Thanks for giving the link to Bidisha's post, Sarah. I just read her post and found it quite interesting. The last paragraph of the post was quite hitting - "I think that an all-male book prize is actually a great idea and will happily support it. But there’s one rule: the angry men administering the prize cannot then exploit women's replaceable, overworked, underpaid, unacknowledged labour. That means the cleaners, caterers, PRs, producers, assistants, administrators, interns, front-of-house, organisers and researchers cannot be women. It means your partners will not do the childcare while you have your meetings. Let's see how far you get." It also made me smile :)

  7. Hey Nana, I think you are right about prizes not being a rubber stamp. Lots of rubbish gets prizes, especially the Booker, I think! But I think prizes do show what is valued, by society at large, and I also think prizes do help sales . . so it is a pity women don't tend to get them.

    Vishy! How interesting your friend explicitly avoids women. I thought it would be more like men just weren't drawn to a certain book, because of the cover, or the summary, and it was thus often women's books. So its interesting to hear he is actually noticing womens names!