Why we need The Women’s Prize for Fiction

Posted in: Blog Feminism Writing

Last night A M Holmes’s May We Be Forgiven won the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange). In the run up to the prize we had the same old sneering criticism from certain quarters that it discriminates against male writers and – after women dominated the Costas and Man Booker – irrelevant. Well diddums. The prize is as relevant today as ever, because, though women writers may be being taken more seriously by other prize juries as a result of the Women’s Prize, there remains a huge disparity in the wider treatment of female authors by the literary establishment.

You don’t have to look far to get a flavour of this discrimination. It’s no accident that the arrival of ‘chick lit’ coincided with the rise of another masculine marketing initiative: Girl Power, with its infantilised entreaties to drink like a lad and dress like an FHM cover girl. A pejorative tag for novels by young women, sales of chick lit were stratospheric and helped fund advances for work deemed ‘literary’. Work predominantly written by men. It implied the novels were about young women whose desperation for a husband eclipsed all else in life: career, education and self-esteem.

The problem was that then –  as now – novels branded chick lit, with headless torsos of women surrounded by designer accessories on their covers, do not conform to this stereotype when you read them: Adele Parks writes about complex female friendships; Marian Keyes about alcoholism and depression; Helen Fielding writes witty satire. Those dismissed as chick lit are as likely to cover inter-generational strife and illness as they are love and handbags. But that doesn’t matter, because they are regarded as the same: a lumpen litertariate for the masses of women who buy fiction (77% of women read fiction, compared to 45% of men according to Book Marketing Ltd).

We’ve seen this before. Would Terence Blacker have dismissed Joanna Trollope’s finely crafted prose as ‘Aga sagas’ if written by a man? The name patronised both writer and reader, conjuring up an erroneous image of cosy kitchens and wisteria festooned cottages.

You may say: things have changed. They have not. Women writers still struggle to be taken seriously in comparison with male writers. The 2012 VIDA survey of the gender balance of reviews and reviewers showed that all the most prestigious literary journals – from the London Review of Books and TLS to the Paris Review and New York Times – showed reviews of books by women outnumbered by at least three to one – in many cases they made up less than a quarter of the reviews.

The ratio of female to male reviewers was equally depressing. Even journals with the highest figures employed a third more men than women. The LRB is a perfect example: men wrote 78% of the reviews and 74% of the books reviewed. In any typical week, you will find similar gender disparity exists in the influential books sections of most national newspapers, with lead reviews generally written by men about books by male authors.

In an industry where men outnumber women in both contributions and consumers – say for instance gaming – this disparity might be justifiable, but in books there is gender parity among authors: and when it comes to consumers 68% of books are bought by women – that is all books. In fiction women buy 80% of books.

This is in a world where reviews matter. They place an author on the creative map, raising her profile and sales potential– all vital to career longevity in a business under such financial constraints that it is hard to justify long term commitment to literary authors ignored by the prestigious journals.

Let me use an example from chick lit to show what I mean. It is a novel about a couple who meet when young. Their will-they-won’t-they love story continues over the next 20 years until she dies tragically and he is left bereft. It’s by turns funny, tragic and romantic. It’s pure women’s commercial fiction. And indeed the majority of readers were women. Marian Keyes could have written it. Not the sort of book you’ll usually see given solus reviews in quality newspapers. But that is what happened to David Nicholls’ One Day. No wonder John O’Connell had to qualify his glowing review in the Times with ‘despite its comic gloss’. The blanket review coverage for One Day was predominantly by men, men who one doubts would usually turn their eye to anything in this genre by women.

Critical praise for Nicholls’ prose helped it win a host of accolades and substantial saes. One of the bestselling adult novels of 2010 – it’s successes coincided with the same newspapers that had lauded it running articles headlines ‘Chick lit is dead’. Don’t get me wrong One Day is an enjoyable book. But it is one of many examples of how women still have to fight for critical parity.

Parity for women reviewers is important for the perspective we give not only as over half of the population but because we will spot things men may not. Women reviewers would surely have picked up more quickly on the absurdity of Ian McEwan’s Saturday when a naked Daisy recites Dover Beach under threat of rape. Would the menopausal ramblings of an old man have been lauded quite so much had Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending been reviewed by women, let alone written by a woman? If Stella Duffy or Amanda Craig had been men maybe they would have been given credit for re-inventing the ‘London novel’ rather than Sebastian Faulks? Both wrote fine literary novels.  Duffy’s The Room of Lost Things appeared 12 months and Craig’s Hearts and Minds six months before A Week In December. Though they didn’t match Faulks’s sales, they sold well and continue to sell. These facts have been ignored in articles written about the genre over the past three years.

Not only are women too frequently omitted from the literary canon, they are forced to deny their gender in a book market that remains in thrall to assumptions about gender buying habits that seem astonishing in 2013. While researching an article about women writing science fiction and fantasy novels for Mslexia, three bestselling women told me – off the record – that they had been pressured to de-gender their names – á la Joanne Kathleen Rowling. This was done by publishers who assume that the majority of fantasy readers are men – even though it is female readers who in recent years have taken this market out of its boysy ghetto and into the mainstream – think Twilight, Hunger Games and the rise and rise of Victorian Gothic and its sibling Steampunk.

The bestseller City of Dark Magic by Magnus Pyke was not the only novel by a woman using a male pseudonym. Seanan McGuire – who wrote the zombie horror trilogy ‘Newsflesh’ – admits she had to fight hard for the right to publish under the female name Mira Grant. Robin Hobb may be a hugely popular fantasy writer, but one wonders whether any combination of her real name Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden would have got past her publisher.

The only market where the opposite applies is that of extreme crime fiction, better known as torture porn. In this market it is believed that women – who form the majority of readers – are uncomfortable reading novels by men featuring the brutal rape and torture of women. So men either adopt female names – as did Martyn Waites who writes as Tania Carver – or gender neutral ones. I wonder how many of those reading Jø Nesbo’s descriptions of a woman having her orifices sealed up with silicon spray in The Devil’s Star realised the writer was a man.

When it comes to lead characters, agents and publishers inform me that outside the obviously commercial markets, literary novels with male protagonists are far more likely to make it from the slush pile than those with female leads. This is born out when you look at the major literary prizes: of the 14 women who have won the Man Booker over half featured a male protagonist. Men can write blithely about marriage, menopause and romance without literary critics condemning them as domestic. Instead their musings on the home front are deemed universal. But for women to do the same…it seems Saul Bellow is not alone in being unable to read their prose without being his critical judgment being deafened by the sound of tinkling teacups.

Does it matter? Of course it does. Novels have huge influence on our culture. They form the basis of much television and film, and more importantly enable an access denied by any other medium. A novel is the only way we can really be inside the head of another human being. It is the only way we can know their thoughts, experience their emotions and understand their reactions. Denying women writers equal stature implies their voices and experiences are less valid than those of men. This is why the Women’ Prize for Fiction remains as important today as it was when it was founded in 1996, during the dark days of Girl Power.

* This is an edited version of a speech given for the Great Men/Women Divide: Myths and Realities on Monday at Kings Place.

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7 Responses to “Why we need The Women’s Prize for Fiction”

Caroline Lodge says:

Thank you for putting the arguments so well. This needs saying again and again, apparently. I loved reading the six shortlisted books for the Women’s Prize. And not so much because they were by women, or for women, but because this amount of good writing does not get recognition without such a prize.

Linda Green says:

Great blog Danuta, needs to be said and heard. I have had five novels published. I have covered subjects such domestic violence, abortion, traumatic brain injury/coma, teenage suicide etc but my first four books were given chick-lit style covers and they are all categorized as chick-lit/romance in book shops/libraries etc. And yet books by Nick Hornby and David Nicholls (two of my favourite authors) are categorized as ‘literary’, reviewed by broadsheets and long-listed for the Booker. Once run a workshop where I asked those attending to pick which extracts were from so-called ‘chick-lit’ and which from literary fiction. There were a lot of wrong answers!

    Danuta Kean says:

    Wow, Linda, your workshop experiment says much about the treatment of writers.

Sara O'Leary says:

Such a big important questions and following the comments it’s interesting to see where readers assume the choices regarding covers are made. You have to wonder how many women really want to see their own work all prettily packaged up in pink like a box of panty-liners. Not that many, I would guess. So then how many women are really going to buy a novel because it has a pink cover or colourful cartoons of shoes and handbags? Given that you’d need to have a reading level above that of a twelve-year-old I’d assume you wouldn’t make choices on books like you were buying Polly Pockets.
So perhaps it is the retailers who need to be educated in all this if they are the ones dictating this this type of “fem” book packaging to publishers? Maureen Johnson’s gender flipping YA book covers was a good start in drawing attention to the absurdity of the situation. More on these lines would be good. Perhaps a call to dream up more gender-neutural covers for recent releases and then flag these improved covers to big retailers/publishers through social media?

Pete says:

It’s a compelling argument and I’d agree with many aspects but not all.

Two thirds of the books I read are by women. Once I’m into the story, I don’t really care what sex the author is. Similarly I’m happy to watch Sofie Grabol or Gillian Anderson be the lead detective on TV because women are senior detectives in the 21st Century and the acting/script is compelling. It does seem ridiculous that there doesn’t seem to be a parity in reviews / reviewers and long as a sponsor sees some enough mileage in a women’s award, why not?

I do however struggle with the chick lit argument (although the name itself is unfortunate). Realistically, I’m not likely to read Marian Keyes if her book covers are covered in handbags and shoes however well she writes. If she had delivered the same words as David Nicholls in the same cover as ‘One Day’ I would pick up the book, think this looks interesting and buy it. There seem to be plenty of female authors who aren’t targeting their books at one gender so I’m not clear why chick lit is anti female and if it is, how it is being supported by anyone other than its female readership?

    Danuta Kean says:

    I take your point, but that rather backs up what I am saying. The books by women – chick lit or otherwise – suffer from an appalling gender stereotyping in their packaging that not only alienates a male audience, but many women too. The author has little or no say over the cover image. This will have been dictated by the retailers who want books that appeal to an obvious demographic, regardless of content, and will blackmail – sorry – inform the publisher that they will take an order for the book if the cover reflects what and where they want it on their shelves.