Do we still need a literary prize for women’s writing?

30th May 2013


The answer is that they were both penned by women writers who felt that they had less chance of being published under their own names. Mary Anne Evans had to write under the pen name George Eliot in order to have her work published.

More than one hundred years later Joanna Kathleen Rowling was advised to abbreviate her authorial name in order to strip it of its obvious femininity. Because her publisher, Barry Cunningham, thought males ‘might be wary of a book written by a woman’.

The (why the hell are we still having this) debate;

So is the way to overcome these obstacles women writers face still lie with  woman-only literary prizes, like The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize ) and the Nita Kibble Literary Award?

This question along with similar variations has been featured in articles and blogs over the past few years, stimulating debate in the comments sections that range between a firm affirmation of needing prizes created exclusively for women, to comments that equate the existence of such awards with ‘bigotry’.

In these scenarios, both men and women have claimed that only literary awards open to both sexes should exist if women want to be considered equal to men.

But what does the unchanged obstacles facing two writers living centuries apart, and the very existence of these prizes in response to bigotry tell us other than that within the past century no substantial or satisfying shift has occurred to ensure an equal playing field for both sexes?

The facts are both with us against us;

One hundred and five Nobel Prizes strong have been awarded for literature since 1901, and yet only twelve of these prizes have been awarded to women.One hundred and five Nobel Prizes have been awarded for literature since 1901, and yet only twelve of these prizes have been awarded to women. Combined with the results of VIDA’s project The Count this paints a pretty grim picture.

The Count consists of collected data that uses pie charts to demonstrate the ‘gender disparity in publishing’ by looking at publications such as The Paris Review, Harpers Magazine and Granta.

Let’s take Granta. At first, the statistics for 2011 seemed promising as the number of women writers published under Granta added up to more than their counterparts.

But in 2012 the statistics were not consistent as male writers once again triumphed with a larger percentage.

At first glance the statistics seem unaffecting, even too imperceptibly dissimilar to be deemed significant. However, the reality is that Granta bumped its 2011 numbers’ by including an All Female issue which explains why in 2012 the number of female writers being published dropped again.

Regardless of these uneasy statistics; out of the twenty writers listed as Granta’s most promising young writers, eleven are women, surpassing men for the first time. Is this a meaningful shift or a temporary fluctuation?

Words like “tokenism” are bandied around this topic but ultimately what’s clear is that women writers cannot rely on the mainstream media to fight this fight for them.

The real solution to this debate lies further outside the realm of the literary world. Because an unequal world overall will continually translate into an unequal literary fragment.

A recent study conducted by the Chartered Institute stated that the average UK salary for a male manager is currently £10,031 more than that of a female manager.

This was part of a bigger statement that equal pay will not transpire until 2057. The Women’s Prize for Fiction and other literary prizes for women exist because women need to help themselves.

The past, present and future for women writers;

Back in the eighteenth century, Georgina Cavendish sponsored the publication of Mary Robinson’s poems at a time when it was virtually impossible to find a publisher who wasn’t male or unwilling to publish a woman.

This was when the likes of Henry Walpole thought it was acceptable to label the very able-minded Mary Wollstonecraft as ‘a hyena in petticoats’.

A recent piece in The Guardian featured a female writer suggesting Wollstonecraft would have made a great judge for the Orange Prize, before ending with ‘We are still woefully short of hyenas in petticoats’.

While the subversion of that ye-olde-glove-in-the-face is fantastic, the writer still overlooks the many, many, many fantastically angry women who have come since Wollstonecraft. When even other female writers can overlook their counterparts; we’ve got a long way to go.

Positive discrimination when it comes to literary prizes will be required as long as society remains unequal and as long as that inequality is reflected in the literary sphere.

Once that inequality is eradicated and equality becomes possible, the effects will trickle into the literary world and the debate will be extinguished.

But first we need to be proactive. It won’t be easy, but women need to get the collective ball rolling and demand that unions help us to acquire equal pay.

On the day that VIDA produces statistics that are exactly equal or at least imperceptible enough not to be noticed, we can perhaps rest easy.

Kathleen Coyle