Novel Women at the ICA

18th Feb 2011

Novel Women at the ICA

On Wednesday, I went along to Novel Women, a talk at the ICA about the dominance of male authors in the media and in major prizes, despite women authors eclipsing them in terms of writers, sales and readers.

With a stellar line-up including author Antonia Byatt, Orange Prize co-founder Kate Mosse and Lennie Goodings from Virago, I was already salivating by the time I settled myself in the somewhat chilly auditorium.

After introductions had been made, we had some statistics: in 43 years of the Man Booker Prize, there have only been fourteen women winners, and the over the years 62% of the shortlisted authors have been men.

Statistical and anecdotal evidence around gender division in reading supports the preconception that although women will read books by authors of any gender, men tend not to read books by women.

Figures from an Arts Council report showed that 77% of women read for pleasure as opposed to only 45% of men, with the figures indicating that women read primarily as a means of escapism.

Then there are the social aspects; the research showed that women rely far more on recommendations from friends, book clubs and reading groups, and value that sense of community and interaction that stems from sharing recommendations and responses.

Men, however, placed much more importance on media reviews and the opinions of literary critics or academics, perhaps illuminating why the judging panels of major literary prizes seem to be biased towards male authors; if they’re the ones who place emphasis on prizes and are more likely to buy books on that basis, then it makes commercial sense to cater to that audience.

With that in mind, it could be tempting to dismiss the major literary prizes as simple marketing ploy; the awards don’t have the same commercial influence over women readers, so it’s no surprise that women don’t have equal visibility.

But although in the short-term the prizes may simply encourage men to buy books by male authors, shortcutting women out of the equation almost altogether, they also have a legacy and that has dangerous implications.

As Kate Mosse put it:

“Prizes define an author’s literary legacy, and safeguard their future visibility. Prizes being awarded now will define what is taught on university syllabuses in decades to come.”

The implication being that the lack of women being awarded major literary prizes now will lead to a self-perpetuating systemic lack of visible women in literature.

Kate Mosse explained that the Orange Prize was founded with the intention of reinstating the visibility of women in literature, saying that the trigger had been the Man Booker shortlist in 1991, which contained no women despite books being published that year by iconic women authors such as Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood.

She said: “The shortlist and subsequent prizes were simply not representative of the reality of publishing. In an ideal world, all authors would be judged on the text alone, but external circumstances make that impossible. As all the candidates on the Orange Prize shortlist are women, it removes any possibility of gender bias and brings the focus back to the text.”

There are also issues with how writing by women is categorised, which could be seen as impacting on subsequent prizes or media response.  Lennie Goodings quoted author Helen Simpson, who said:

“Calling a work of fiction domestic is a political and not a literary distinction.”

The panel also observed that women’s invisibility is by no means exclusive to literature, suggesting the problem is more systemic than simply down to sexism on prize panels or in the publishing industry.

As Helena Kennedy put it:

“Even when women are involved throughout the judging process, the criteria of ‘merit’ has traditionally been defined by men.”

The Gender Institute‘s Mary Evans speculated that the discrepancy was down to a down to “a paradox in terms of authority and subject matter”, citing the movement of ‘condition of England’ novels in the 19th century by authors such as George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaitskill.

These books coincided with the suffragette movement, giving women the authority to comment on the socio-political context that they usually lacked.

She said:

“For many readers , literature has become a secular religion. As the popularity of tradition organised religions declines, male authors have become quasi-religious authority figures.

Women do not internalise that Judeo-Christian traditional of authority, and as such do not feel as comfortable taking on those roles.”

Kate Mosse supported the suggestion of women authors not being seen as authorities on their subject matter, citing Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors as an example, which at the time of publication was seen as pioneering because of its focus on domestic violence, despite many other books on the same issue being written by women authors.

There were several other examples of inequality, including World Book Night (only eight women authors out of twenty-five) and the BBC’s Year of Books, where only a quarter of the programmes are about or presented by women.

Although there’s an argument that some visibility is better than none, Kate Mosse made the point that with only a small proportion of women represented, you miss out on the range of women’s voices and experiences. Tokenism negates plurality, so there’s still the need to maintain pressure.

As always with talks like this, there’s an element of preaching to converted, and some of the comments from the audience varied from self-congratulatory to downright crackers, but overall although there were inevitably no concrete answers, it was an illuminating way to spend an evening.

What do you think? Were you in attendance? Or maybe you’ve got your own theories on the issue. Tell us in the comments if so!

Jane Bradley


  • found your blog on the sunday book review. I enjoyed reading the facts that you learned. It doesn’t surprise me that more women than men read for pleasure, it’s a nightmare trying to get my husband to read anything!

  • Cassandra @ Indie Reader Houston says:

    The point that Mosse makes about books written by male authors dominating University syllabi is an interesting one. I don’t know if it is because of where I went to school, but the majority of my classes focused heavily on women authors – even the lit surveys. Of course, the majority of my classes were Modern/Contemporary literature. That may have had something to do with. Anything I studied during the 19th century or earlier was definitely male-dominated.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment, Cassandra – and for stopping by too! You make an intriguing point – with the exception of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, all the contemporary fiction in my classes were by male authors, so maybe it’s as much about who’s compiling the course and whether or not they’re conscious of the gender bias…

  • Kat says:

    Hi Jane! Has this event been recorded and/or broadcast anywhere? I’m doing my MSc in Publishing and this is all very relevant to my dissertation – was just wondering if there’s the possibility of any access to the material in full. I live in Scotland otherwise I would have attended in person! Thanks.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Hi Kat! Thanks for the comment. The event was definitely recorded on the night (I remember the cameras being set up at one side of the stage), but I haven’t seen/heard any of the footage. I would start by contacting the ICA directly and seeing if they have a record of who was there i.e. if it was press or for their own archives. Hope that helps, let me know how you get on and if they’re no help I can provide details for some of the other people who were involved (Virago, Orange Prize etc) as they may have also been recording for their own future use!