in defence of women-only literary awards
Last Friday I was pottering away at my internship doing intern-y things (jamming the printer, killing trees and making little people out of paper clips) when all of a sudden my boss did something very strange…he asked for my opinion. I was taken aback. He wanted my opinion? The opinion of the lowly intern? The opinion of the weirdo in the corner bending all the paper clips?
He wanted to know what I thought of women-only literary awards and the newly established Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing. I replied that I hadn’t really formed an opinion on that prickly issue. He gave me an article to read and said he’d like to hear my thoughts when he came back from lunch. The article began with the news that the Orange Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards for female writers, had lost its sponsorship only to be saved by a group of private benefactors led by Cherie Blair. It then went on to explore the gender imbalance in the publishing industry and the need for exclusively female literary awards like the Orange and the Stella.
When I finished the article I scoured Google for more information. As I read, the ball-busting feminist inside me reared her head. By the time my boss returned from lunch I was hunched over the computer, hating men and muttering things about injustice and hegemonic masculinity. I looked up at him and launched into an impassioned rant about the need for women-only literary awards. I think it’s safe to say he will never ask for my opinion again.
After placating my inner feminist with The First Wives Club and doing a bit more reading I’m now able to write about the issue with a degree of sanity. I’m still hunched over my computer but I don’t hate men as much and I’m not muttering things under my breath (although I will occasionally yell out in my wannabe gangster voice, ‘I’M A FREE INDEPENDENT WOMAN; I DON’T NEED NO MAN’).
The argument against women-only literary awards is that they are discriminatory, patronising and outdated. Some writers argue that the whole idea is sexist. Writer Paul Bailey slammed the Orange Prize saying that ‘sexes should not be separated like this in art’. Anita Brookner, winner of the 1984 Man Booker Prize, believes in a meritocracy: ‘If a book is good, it will get published. If it is good it will get reviewed.’ Others argue that women-only awards perpetuate the idea that women are a disadvantaged group in need of support and special treatment. Part of me agrees with these arguments. I would love to live in a world where men and women stood equal on the literary playing field and a meritocracy ruled. I would love to live in a world where women-only literary awards were unnecessary and outdated. But unfortunately this is not the case.
Australia’s highest literary accolade, the Miles Franklin, has been awarded to a woman 13 times out of 50 and only twice in the last ten years. And the Man Booker Prize has only been won by 16 women since it was set up in 1969. There is no denying that there is a serious gender imbalance in literary awards. Maybe a women-only literary award is not the best solution but it sure as hell beats sitting around doing nothing.
The root of the problem lies in the wider literary world and taps into a number of contentious issues.
Firstly, sexism is rife in book reviewing. Every year Vida, an organisation for women in literary arts, releases statistics showing the proportion of reviews by and about women compared to those by and about men. In 2011 the London Review of Books reviewed 168 male authors and 58 female. There were only 29 female book reviewers versus 155 male. The New York Review of Books reviewed a staggering 306 male authors compared to 59 women and only has 39 female reviewers versus 200 male.
Rebecca Starford, editor of Kill Your Darlings, released statistics showing how Australian publications fared over two months. The Age reviewed 90 books by men and only 43 by women. There were 72 male reviewers compared to 61 female. The Australian Literary Review featured 41 male writers and 10 female. Of their reviewers, 36 were men and 15 were women.
They’re depressing statistics. After reading them, I get the urge to put on my pointiest high heels and go out and kick men. This wouldn’t do much good but it would make me feel better.
The second problem is the way books are designed and marketed. A lot of the work of female writers is ‘trussed up in gaudy manipulation of “feminine”’. Next time you go into a bookstore, have a look at the book covers of female writers. You’ll probably find lots of wistful young women looking off into the distance or walking through a garden. And don’t even get me started on the vagina motifs! Blossoming flower equals vagina. Glossy open mouth equals vagina. Ripe fruit peeled open equals vagina.
But enough about vaginas. Let’s get back to the cock-fest that is the literary world. There is a gender imbalance in some areas of publishing and this can lead to a gender imbalance in literary awards. Yes, it would be better if a meritocracy prevailed. Yes, it would be better if sexism was nonexistent. Yes, it would be better if we didn’t need women-only literary awards. But until all the shit is sorted out we need women-only literary awards. We need awards that ‘will raise the profile of women’s writing…encourage a future generation of women writers, and significantly increase the readership for books by women.’
WE’RE FREE INDEPENDENT WOMEN; WE DON’T NEED NO MEN.
What do you think about women-only literary awards?
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