Why So Few Prizes for Female Writers?

In her Guardian article on 23 January, Stephanie Merritt argues that female authors ‘rule literary fiction’, but receive few prizes.  This complaint, while it may be justified, is poorly documented.

Ms Merritt, born in 1974 in Surrey, is a literary critic, author and feature writer for the Observer and Guardian.  She read  English at Queens College and graduated from Cambridge University in 1996.  Her first novel, Gaveston, won the Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors in 2002.  She has since written six historical novels featuring Giordano Bruno under the pseudonym S J Parris, and a memoir called The Devil Within, which was shortlisted for the Mind Book Award, about her experience coping with depression.

Stephanie Merritt at the 2016 Hay Festival

She says: “On the face of it, the revelation that female writers dominated the UK bestseller lists in 2017 might seem cause for celebration.  According to the Bookseller, only one man, Haruki Murakami made it to the top ten that saw a generation of female writers, including Sarah Perry, Naomi Alderman and Zadie Smith displace venerable fixtures of the literary landscape such as Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.

“But does this really represent a dramatic shift in the recognition of female literary talent?  The Bookseller list was compiled, by its own admission, according to a narrow definition of ‘literary’, limiting its choices principally to authors who have won, or been shortlisted for, major awards.

“Given the well-documented bias of the big prizes in favour of male authors – in 2015, the author Kamila Shamsie established that less than 40% of the titles submitted by publishers for the Booker in the previous five years had been by women – this results in a very small pool of eligible names.

“If you were to take at face value the discrepancy in coverage in major newspapers and journals, you might conclude that men are simply producing more ‘serious’ fiction than women.  But, as Francine Prose pointed out twenty years ago in her essay Scent of a Woman’s Ink, this is largely to do with an inherent bias in the way men’s and women’s wok is perceived.  When a male author writes about a family, it is regarded as social commentary; when a woman does, it’s a domestic tale.

“As recently at 2015, the author Catherine Nichols wrote about the experience of having her first novel universally rejected, only to meet with a very different response when she resubmitted it under a male pseudonym.”

I understand Ms Merritt’s complaint, and it is probably quite just, but this article doesn’t prove it.  She says that 9 of the top ten literary writers in 2017 were women, but women don’t receive a fair share of prizes.  Yet she says that one has to be a prize winner or shortlisted for a prize to make the list at all.

She says that less than 40% of the titles submitted for Booker consideration were by women.  All things being equal, this number should be 50%, and therefore, in my opinion, 40% does not result in a ‘very small pool’.

She refers to the ‘well documented bias’ of big prizes in favour of male authors.  It would have been useful to her case if she had cited some specifics.

That said, the points made by Francine Prose and Catherine Nichols appear to point to an injustice.

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