Study of six major awards in the last 15 years shows male subjects the predominant focus of winning novels
Analysis of the last 15 years of winners of six major literary awards by the critically acclaimed author Nicola Griffith has found that a novel is more likely to land a prize if the focus of the narrative is male.
Griffith looked at the winners of the Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book award, National Book Critics’ Circle award, Hugo and Newbery medal winners over the last 15 years. She collated the gender of the winners, and that of their protagonists, finding that for the Pulitzer, for example, “women wrote zero out of 15 prize-winning books wholly from the point of view of a woman or girl”.
The Man Booker, between 2000 and 2014, was won by nine books by men about men or boys, three books by women about men or boys, two books by women about women or girls, and one book by a woman writer about both. The US National Book award over the same period, found Griffith, was won by eight novels by men about men, two books by women about men, one book by a man about both, three books by a woman about both, and two books by women about women.
“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to literary prizes, the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women. Either this means that women writers are self-censoring, or those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring. Certainly the results argue for women’s perspectives being considered uninteresting or unworthy. Women seem to have literary cooties,” wrote Griffith in a piece laying out her analysis in a series of pie charts.
“The literary establishment doesn’t like books about women. Why?” she asked. “The answer matters. Women’s voices are not being heard. Women are more than half our culture. If half the adults in our culture have no voice, half the world’s experience is not being attended to, learnt from or built upon. Humanity is only half what we could be.”
Her analysis came as the summer issue of Mslexia, the magazine for women writers, explores the the “silent takeover by men of the top jobs” in British publishing. Industry expert Danuta Kean laid out how, since 2008, the “women at the top of the three biggest corporate publishing houses have stepped aside – in each case to be replaced by men”.
Penguin managing director Helen Fraser retired in 2009, pointed out Kean, Random House chair and chief executive Gail Rebuck stepped down from the day-to-day running of the company in July 2013, and Victoria Barnsley has been replaced at HarperCollins by Charlie Redmayne. Little, Brown chief executive Ursula Mackenzie has also recently announced she would be stepping down from her position in July, replaced by David Shelley.
“To some extent the departure of these women reflects a generational shift. All fought their way to the top in the 1980s and all are now of retirement age. But, given the huge workforce of women at every other level in the publishing industry, why aren’t they being replaced by women?” asked Kean, quoting Dotti Irving, chief executive of public relations firm Four Colman Getty: “I don’t see the next generation of women coming through. It’s depressing but true.”
Kean pointed to a recent report in the Bookseller, which found that 80 percent of staff at publisher Pan Macmillan are female, but that a ‘glass ceiling hinders women in the trade’. “The same report pointed out that, though publishing giant Hachette UK has six female divisional heads, and Penguin Random House has five, again these represent a minority at senior levels overall,” writes Kean, attributing the change to, among other things, the agglomeration of publishing bringing back more traditional management structures to the sector, and digitization, an area “traditionally spearheaded by younger male staff”.
Given that women are by far the biggest group of readers, having women at the top of publishing firms “impacts on both the status and diversity of fiction – and other books – on offer to women readers”, she argues. And “it’s no coincidence that the period when passionate women execs held some of the top jobs in publishing coincides with the period when women writers are succeeding as never before in the literary prize stakes. Books for the major prizes are submitted by publishers, with a limit of two to three titles per publisher – so it really matters if those few books are by women.”
Looking at Griffith’s research into prizes, Kean told the Guardian that “it is a real problem in the literary market about how we deal with the so-called ‘domestic’”.
“We have an overwhelming cultural bias that is against women, and is against the domestic,” she said. “And we don’t question that cultural bias when it comes to judging prizes. I’m not saying people are prejudiced, but we have innate biases. And women can be just as bad, sometimes even worse, than men for this, and it will translate into every aspect of the judgments we make.”
Griffith, who has won a host of awards for her own writing, agreed. “Why does this shocking disparity exist, even though there are many women judges? Well, in my opinion it’s not primarily anything to with who is judging. It’s about the culture we’re embedded in and that’s embedded in us all of us, women and men. This is the culture that still calls male writers Writers, and female writers Women Writers. The male perspective is still the real one, the standard. Women’s voices are just details.”
Griffith said that she first noticed the disparity in prizewinners when she started out as a writer. “But it was the 90s, and there was a certain amount of optimism in the publishing ecosystem – here in the US at least. Books by and about women were beginning to do well. I thought: ‘Oh, it will get better on its own,’” she told the Guardian by email.
“But then the publishing landscape changed (corporate ownership, consolidation, big chains). This led to scarcity – fewer independent publishers and editors with individual taste, fewer authors being promoted by their publishers, fewer unique buyers at fewer retailers, fewer review slots. Scarcity leads to conservative behaviour.”
But Griffith, a British-American novelist who lives in Seattle, said that she doesn’t see her results as “depressing anymore”, more “as a problem to be solved”. With VIDA, the research group for women in books, now engaging in an annual analysis of the gender balance of literary criticism, Griffith is calling for others to join her in collating and analysing award data.
“Can we fix this? Oh, yes. That’s the beauty of graphed data: people will look. And if they look, they can’t avoid understanding it,” she said.
“What I’d like to see is many hands – women and men – involved in a neutral and dispassionate accumulation of data. Masses and masses of data. Data is the key. Data doesn’t blame anyone or point fingers; data doesn’t make anyone defensive and prompt them to be obstructive.”
She is hoping to look at more genres and more awards, and then at more aspects of the process: “which books are submitted, which longlisted, shortlisted … who writes what books and submits them for publication, how many by/about wo/men are published, how many supported, how many reviewed, and so on”. “Data is the key. We have the tools now to accumulate, analyze, display and share easily. Data will show us patterns. Patterns will lead to correlations. Correlations will lead to possible causes. Causes will help us find solutions,” she said. “I use the plural because I think we’ll need to experiment with a variety of solutions at different stages of a book’s life cycle and in different parts of the ecosystem. But it’s totally doable, in my opinion. It’s just work.”