Where’s the Wo-Man Booker Prize?

investigates gender bias in literary awards

As the prizes for literary awards grow by the year- in terms of money, prestige, guaranteed future success- it’s no wonder that people have become particularly interested in how to scoop one up. It seems that merely being a talented writer is no longer enough. There’s a wealth of tips and tricks to be accessed. According to Guardian writer, Alison Flood, you should be under 50 and entering your seventh novel, which should, ideally, be 378 pages long.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most reliable way to claim a top literary award is to be a man. The Man Booker Prize has had 31 male winners and 16 female since its creation in 1969. But it’s not who the author is that concerns me, rather who the protagonist is. In 2015, novelist Nicola Griffiths investigated the last 15 years of major literary awards, and found that novels focusing on women (i.e. with a central female character) were far less likely to win. One of the most alarming statistics is that Pulitzer Prize has had 8 winning novels about men, by men, and no winning novels about women (by either men or women). The Man Booker Prize was slightly more diverse, with two winners being women writing about women, but saw no men writing about women, and a total of 9 male winners with novels about men. The last title with a female protagonist to win was Anne Enright’s The Gathering in 2007. This year’s winner was George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, the protagonist of which is Abraham Lincoln.

Overwhelmingly, the conclusion seems to be that if you want to win a literary award, you should write about men. So why is that? Is the issue that people don’t want to write about women, or that people don’t want to read about them? The top 10 of the Guardian’s 100 Best Novels boasts an array of books with male names contained within the titles- Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Frankenstein. There are a token couple of female orientated novels such as Emma, but I wonder which of them would pass the Bechdel Test (to pass, a piece of work must contain at least two female characters, who have a conversation with each other, concerning something other than a man). Of course, we have to acknowledge the context for writers like Jane Austen, in which the concerns of a female character would have been predominantly male-centred. But these concerns are still held in the highest regard in literary circles, as the list confirms. It seems a shame that a more progressive novel about a woman wasn’t included in the top 10.

Popular novels about women are bought and read every day. Why then, do the most prestigious of prizes neglect them? The fact is that there are vital stories to be told by women and it is time that the literary world gave them the recognition they deserve. Dedicated awards, such as the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction are not the answer; these novels should be integrated fully and equally. The onus is, somewhat, on the authors. Nicola Griffiths’ research found that no awards had been given to books by men about women, and few male novelists tend to write female protagonists; perhaps men should be taking more of a risk with their subject matter. But it is time that more of an effort is made to promote the voices of women. Literary awards have a responsibility, now more than ever, to ensure that the novels they champion better reflect a diverse spectrum of narratives. The stories of women are out there, and they need to be noticed.

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