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Do We Still Need a Women’s Prize for Fiction?

It is time to consider retiring awards segregated by the sex of the author.

· 6 min read
Do We Still Need a Women’s Prize for Fiction?
The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2023 judging panel. Photo via their website. 

On March 7th, the longlist for the 2023 Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced. The prize was established in 1996, partly in response to the 1991 Booker Prize, in which no women were featured on the shortlist. The omission was symptomatic of a bias lingering in the literary establishment more generally, despite a steep rise in the number of female authors and editors during the 1990s. Although some notable figures voiced their reservations about the prize, it was nonetheless widely celebrated as an important platform that would accelerate the march towards gender equality.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when gender equality was achieved in publishing. But it was achieved, and it was achieved quicker than anyone could have foreseen, even in 1996. I was born a year after the first Women’s Prize for Fiction (or the Orange Prize, as it was then known), and I’ve since witnessed the transformation of the literary landscape from a conglomerate of chain-smoking mad men into an Amazonian empire of enterprising young women. To the older generations of publishers who remember the last few decades with clarity, the change must have seemed particularly rapid.

In the afterword to Circus of Dreams, his new memoir about a professional life spent on the 1980s books scene, the publishing veteran John Walsh explains just how much things have changed:

In the 1980s, female authors seemed to have a harder time getting published than men; the first appearance of the [Granta] Best of Young British Novelists promotion counted only six women in the twenty writers. Today, new male writers struggle to be signed up. A search of the Bookseller’s news archive for 2020 revealed that, of the seventy-seven debut novels that featured in the news pages, only seven were by men.

“It is, of course,” Walsh adds, “a good thing that the gender imbalance should be redressed; but when in the 2020s, male writers are told that nobody wants to hear their stories, and commissioning editors in modern publishers are advised not to take on books that won’t sell until they’re part of an acceptable demographic, the literary landscape seems a very bleak place.”

The absence of male authors in bestseller lists or on the front-desk shelves of Waterstones or Angus & Robertson can be easy to overlook; after all, how does one notice something that isn’t there? But to budding male authors, the knowledge that their chances of publication are infinitesimal can be demoralizing. Eight of the 13 writers longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize (or Man Booker Prize, as it’s now known) were women. A glance at the bestselling fiction list on Amazon reveals that around 80 percent of the fiction books featured in the top 25 on any given week have usually been written by women. The men who are included on these lists are older authors, such as Alan Garner and Percival Everett, who came to prominence back when men still held the advantage. Debut male authors are nowhere to be seen.

These discrepancies reflect a similar story in editorial, marketing, and development. My partner and I have both worked in publishing, and can separately attest that women make up the lion’s share of the workforce. And if anecdotal insight lacks authority, consider the fact that, according to the Publishers Association Report on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging, women now outnumber men in the publishing world by two to one—a figure that has remained consistent since the first such report was released in 2015.

The ascendancy of women in publishing was certainly overdue. When I look at the demographic make-up of my English classes at university, or of the book club I host, I’m given to suspect that there is something about literature—and fiction in particular—as a quietly contemplative endeavour that makes it more appealing to women than to men, who are generally happier kicking a ball around or mowing down zombies in cyberspace. But since the asymmetry that inspired the Women’s Prize for Fiction no longer pertains, is it unfair to ask if the time has come to re-evaluate the necessity—or indeed the morality—of retaining such discriminatory competitions?

One of the keystones of conservative thought is that it is much more difficult to build something up than it is to tear it down. But the reverse seems to be true of institutions, programmes, scholarships, and prizes designed to address social injustice. Even when their stated objectives are achieved by progressive reforms and the statistics are no longer on their side—a development that ought to threaten them with obsolescence and irrelevancy—they have a habit of resorting to anecdotal evidence of a persistent problem. The sexism of the new status quo is either defended or denied outright, and those unwise enough to point it out risk potentially enormous consequences in our censorious climate of clickbait outrage.

For young male writers, the chances of getting published are already slim, but they would be nigh-on nonexistent for anyone drawing attention to a disparity which flies directly in the face of the activist narrative. Which agent would be willing to sign up a writer faced with accusations of misogyny simply for pointing out the obvious? Where is the appeal in a poet—picture the paraphrastic headlines—who has been accused of believing that women ought to stay in their lane? Even established men in the industry feel cowed into silence, as Johanna Thomas-Corr discovered when she tried to speak to them about this topic for the Guardian: “The subject is such a hornet’s nest that almost every man in the books industry who I approached refused to speak on the record for fear of the backlash.”

In the rare moments that the burgeoning imbalance between men and women is addressed, the media response tends towards a gleeful schadenfreude. When conservative columnist Allison Pearson was invited to pass comment on male authors adopting feminine pseudonyms to sell titles—an act of subterfuge that recalls the tribulations of George Eliot and the Brontës 200 years ago—she called it a “marvellous role reversal, which I think is a cause for celebration” and “a small moment of triumph.” (The BBC interviewer offered no resistance, presumably because he wished to keep his career.) The author Kamila Shamsie even made the absurd suggestion that publishers drop their male authors for the whole of 2018 to mark the centenary of women getting the vote.

Fortunately, other women have spoken out against the exclusivity of the girls’ clubs and the vindictive nature of this literary overcorrection. Lionel Shriver, who won the Orange Prize in 2005 for her excellent novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, dismissed Shamsie’s pipe-dream for “treating women specially, as if they need special help and special rules.” When the Women’s Prize for Fiction was first established, Walsh criticised it for the same reason, opining that it might lead people to “infer that women writers are not as proficient,” a sentiment echoed by feminist critic Germaine Greer and by A.S. Byatt, who refused to have her work considered for the prize. Keeping men and women separate in sports makes sense, given the mean difference in physical capability between the sexes. But separating women into a league of their own resembles a kind of literary Paralympics—it leaves the unintended impression that women writers are not as talented as their male counterparts, especially considering the advantages they already enjoy.

If initiatives aimed at advancing the interests of women as a marginalised demographic were established to promote diversity in publishing, they are now having the opposite effect. As Shriver has pointed out in a recent Spectator article, the artificial oversaturation of women in publishing, almost all of whom are university-educated, left-leaning, and concentrated in London or New York, has transformed the behemoth of English-language publishing into a “small, politically homogenous world” that rarely takes risks or rewards innovation. The market would rather play it safe, pandering to its increasingly niche audience, perfectly content to lose the business of half the world’s population.

“It’s now a truism that white males have a vanishingly small chance of being published anywhere,” writes Shriver, “although I’ve seen no market research verifying that the book-buying public don’t want to read white males’ work.” And even if the public do want to read books written by men, publishers don’t want to sell them. As Hannah Westland of Serpent’s Tail has pointed out, “there are fewer prizes open to men, fewer magazines that will cover male authors, and fewer media figures willing to champion them,” all of which makes them too difficult to promote.

Deprived of opportunities, excluded from awards, absent from marketing, and barely represented in the publishing and editorial houses, what hope is there for young male writers going forward? To look to the future, perhaps we need to look to the past. The triumph of women in publishing can be boiled down to two forces working in tandem. The first is ethics. The increasingly liberal Britain of the late 20th century would no longer put up with the sexist standards of the industry, and so, in the wake of the sexual revolution, publishing had to adapt. The second force is women’s love of literature—or men’s lack thereof. As the old adage goes, demographics are destiny; as soon as the barriers to female employment and self-empowerment were lifted, women’s dominance of the industry metamorphosed from an impossibility into an inevitability.

Now that the gender ratio within publishing is more or less proportional to the gender ratio in the general readership, the way to ensure that male writers enjoy the same privileges and possibilities as their female counterparts is a recommitment to fairness—a road which the exhausted force of ethics must walk alone. But so long as the Virgils of the publishing Purgatorio fold their arms and look away, stubbornly stoking an outdated narrative of male domination and an atmosphere in which men are too afraid to protest, perhaps there’s nothing to do but stay at the bottom.

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