It's been an interesting couple of weeks for ... well, now, exactly how do I complete that sentence? ... the fairer sex? ... those of a female persuasion? ... literary ladies? ... Let's just go with women. An interesting couple of weeks for women in the world of literature.
Last Tuesday, we had Fay Weldon saying on BBC Radio Four, "There are books, and there is literature - and women read books", adding that women "read for comfort". I noticed a few splutters of objection on Twitter, but generally her comments didn't seem to stir up the kind of backlash I'd imagined when I'd heard the interview on my drive in to work. I'm tempted to wonder whether that would have been different if such broadly dismissive comments had been made by a man?
Next came the news that the Women's Prize for Fiction will, from next year, have Baileys as its title sponsor. Reaction to this seemed considerably stronger, from lofty sneering at the liqueur in question in the Telegraph, to a down-with-snobbery, bring-it-on whoop of delight from
the Scottish Book Trust that the prize has a secure future once more.
All of this overshadowed, to some extent, the fact that this year's award was won by AM Homes, for her book May We be Forgiven, making her the only person - male or female - who's managed to beat Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies to the top spot in a major competition.
As usual, the Women's Prize for Fiction brings with it some hand-wringing and soul-searching. Is a prize restricted to women entrants actually necessary? Is it patronising? Is it [deep breath] sexist?
Danuta Kean makes a good argument on her blog for why the prize is important. But, right at the start, she spoils it all by her response to men questioning the need for a women-only prize: "Diddums". By assuming the only reason to question or criticise the prize is because jealous male writers see a £30,000 prize they're not allowed to compete for, Danuta misses the point - or at least, one of the points (I'm sure there are some green-eyed men grinding their teeth and swearing never to drink Baileys again (more on that, later)).
I'm speaking here not as an embittered male writer deprived of the chance to win a substantial wedge of cash, but as a male reader interested in contemporary fiction. I'm a member of a minority - it's estimated us chaps account for just a fifth of fiction sales. However, though we're a small band, our influence is considerable. The vast majority of broadsheet critics and reviewers are male, and they tend to review books written by men. This disproportionate representation at the top of the literary food chain is what concerns and annoys Danuta and a lot of other people. The argument is that, by having some sort of old boy's club determining what's good literature and what's too girly to even bother with, female authors don't get taken seriously and a lot of fantastic books by female writers get overlooked.
All of this makes sense. But it relies on the idea of broadsheet reviews and critical opinion being the whole story. I haven't been able to find any information on how getting a review in, say, the TLS affects book sales. Do the 77% of women in the UK (who account for the other four fifths of all fiction sold) read reviews? Does it actually influence their decision as to what books to buy? If that was the case, books written by men would hugely outsell those by women - is that the case? These aren't meant to be rhetorical questions, but with limited time to research all I can say is it's not a simple matter to find the answers. There always seems to be a decent mix of male and female authors in the top ten whenever I go into Waterstones, and (in recent years, at least) there's been no shortage of female authors on the shortlists of major literary prizes. When I went to the Voewood Literary Festival last year, there was by no means a male bias to the selection of authors speaking and signing books.
What I'm getting at is that it's all very well bemoaning the bias of the critical establishment, but without data to prove it makes a difference, then it's impossible to say whether or not it's actually a problem. Danuta Kean cites Marian Keyes as a typical example of an overlooked female author, writing "about alcoholism and depression" but saddled with the burden of being deemed a "chick lit" author. I've never read one of her books (and, yes - the swirly font and hearts on the cover would probably put me off), but it's hard to be too sympathetic with her plight when her books frequently sell more than five million copies and have made her one of the richest writers around.
It strikes me that women appear to be a lot more 'social' with their reading, and a book will do well through word of mouth even if it's been ignored or even lambasted by the critics. The Fifty Shades phenomenon was perhaps the most compelling example of this - women read it not because it was any good, but because all their friends were reading it. It didn't need to win any prizes to become one of the most important and influential books of recent years (and, no - I haven't read that one, either).
Whether or not that theory's true, I am left wondering about this idea that the best way to draw attention to women authors and their work is by having a women-only prize. Is it likely that female drivers would be more respected by men if they had their own lane on the motorway? Dividing fiction into "Fiction" and "Fiction Written by Women" doesn't make sense to me. There's no way to dispel the impression this gives that the kind of stories women make up are less important, less powerful, and need to be judged away from the bright lights of the stories the men have concocted. This is, of course, utter rubbish - but here we are.
Which is why I can't get my head around the choice of sponsor for the Women's Prize for Fiction. Baileys. Sickly, sweet, and quite thick. Is that really the image female writers want to be associated with? Okay, the latest Baileys adverts are striving for a more refined, glamorous image, but it's still aimed entirely at women. Baileys' involvement isn't something that's going to make many men sit up and take notice. You could say, "So what?" but, with more than three-quarters of women already buying books it's not them the organisers need to convince. Less than half of men buy books, so it would have been encouraging to have seen a sponsor that might have been able to shift the stubborn perception that women write books for other women to read. As it stands, I can't see how having Baileys at the helm is going to do anything other than reinforce the status quo, with the dusty old critics peering over their reading glasses and saying, "Aw, bless 'em and their girly drink, still scribbling away at their funny little kitchen table dramas."
Surely that doesn't do anybody any good?
A good article Dan on a divisive subject. I also think they've gone wandering off up the wrong path with Bailey's and I'm not sure about what I think of the Women's Prize per se. It's good in one sense as women are still under-represented in many professions at the highest levels. However - big however - I think women are doing alright in literature and how would we all feel if there were a men's prize for literature?... Sexist? - I'd say!!
I am all for equality of women and men in most aspects of life, so I find the idea of a women's fiction prize a retrograde step for women.
I'm with Danuta. Her remarks regarding One Day say it all really. That is "chick lit" and almost certainly would not have been reviewed as widely, perhaps at all, if it had been written by a woman. So there's an imbalance that still needs correcting, I think.
Thanks, Sam - In one of the articles, they said the prize organisers considered more than 20 potential sponsors who were keen to get involved. It would have been interesting to know who they were. Max Factor? Lil-Lets? On the other hand, maybe they were too blokey - "... and the 2014 Castrol GTX Women's Prize for Fiction goes to..."
And, yes, a male-only prize would be ridiculous.
Thanks, Perry - Exactly. I wonder what the perception would be if there was a literary organisation that awarded prizes to the best book by a man, and the best one by a woman, like the Oscars?
Hi Louise. The thing is that if One Day had been written by a woman, the chances are it would have sold perfectly well (perhaps even better) if it had been written by a woman, because if fits so well into that "Chick Lit" mould. The possibility that it might not have been reviewed doesn't really contribute anything to the debate, as that can't be proved one way or the other. I'm not saying there isn't a problem with the generally male bias of reviews, I just think that without some proper data regarding what the effect of a review actually is, it's difficult to establish whether it's genuinely putting female authors at a disadvantage. The indications seem to be that it doesn't stop books by women selling, and it doesn't stop them being considered for serious literary awards.
After all, a book doesn't win prizes because of good reviews. Publishers put them forward and hope they make the grade. A good example of this is Alison Moore's The Lighthouse, which I don't think had had any significant reviews prior to being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Newspapers rushed to review it, and by the time it reached the shortlist it had been in all the broadsheets. So authors can be in the running for one of the world's major literary prizes on merit alone, regardless of reviews - which is, of course, how it should be.
"I haven't been able to find any information on how getting a review in, say, the TLS affects book sales. Do the 77% of women in the UK (who account for the other four fifths of all fiction sold) read reviews? Does it actually influence their decision as to what books to buy? If that was the case, books written by men would hugely outsell those by women - is that the case? These aren't meant to be rhetorical questions, but with limited time to research all I can say is it's not a simple matter to find the answers."
Shame, this was the one piece of your post I was interested to know.
If you don't have the research to back up your thesis, why argue? Your argument as it is, well, it's cruxless...
But, if you think reviews are out of the equation, you might want to look into how many female authors get their books put forward by their publishers for said prizes. You might be surprised to find bias there, too.
Citing Moore's success and suggesting it represents the norm is optimistic and naive at best.
I agree with much of Danuta's article. To take offence at "diddums", well, it doesn't touch on what it feels like for women to have their literary fiction dismissed as teacups and frippery, I'm afraid.
Off the top of my head, compare how Colm Toibin and Maeve Binchy's fiction is described (go wiki), see how Toibin's intellectualism is pushed versus Maeve's humour and friendliness. Look at how their book covers differ, yet the subject matter is often very similar.
There is bias, Dan. Use your gender advantage to call it out for the discrimination it is.
Otherwise, good call on Weldon's remarks and the booze sponsor. :)
Thanks for a thoughtful post Dan. The issue is a societal problem, and not just related to books; there have been similar discussions/controversies in other areas, such as music e.g. the MOBOs. So, whilst there is discrimination against a particular group, I think there is no harm, and hopefully some good from specific prizes and awards. It at least highlights the issue and causes debate. I think there are more than enough prizes out there now for all. I just wish I was younger as there seem to be many opportunities for young artists (16-25), and so there should be.
Thanks for your comments, Rachel. I clearly need to work on my essay skills, as I'm not sure how you could look at what I've written and think I'm suggesting there isn't a bias ("The vast majority of broadsheet critics and reviewers are male, and they tend to review books written by men." and so on), or that I'm offended by the 'diddums' comment, or that I'm suggesting Alison Moore's example can or should be regarded as the norm.
You're objecting to my argument because of the lack of data, but I'm responding to the lack of data in the argument I'm objecting to. I appreciate we're going around in circles. But the crux of my argument is that there doesn't seem to be a problem with women writers being shortlisted for or winning major prizes, and (from what I've observed personally) they don't suffer in terms of sales (or numbers of readers, to put it in less mercenary terms). Yes, there does seem to be a problem with male reviewers favouring male authors' books and it would be good to see this change. Yes, there are clearly issues with how books are packaged and marketed by the publishers.
But what I'm interested in is how a women-only prize is going to change any of that, and that's the vital part of the debate to which I'm yet to see a convincing response. How does branding something "Women's fiction" widen its appeal?
Thanks, Peter. I'd agree that competitions for younger writers are a good thing, although by the time I started writing fiction I was already too old for the ones you mention, which is a depressing thought.
Also, I can see the benefit in things like the Guardian First Book Award. But then, "It's an impressive piece of writing, for a first novel" is nowhere near as damning as "It's an impressive piece of writing, for a woman".
"Yes, there are clearly issues with how books are packaged and marketed by the publishers.
"But what I'm interested in is how a women-only prize is going to change any of that?"
One reason might be because the vast majority of great women's fiction is mis-labled as chick-lit and therefore never gets put forward for dual male/female literary prizes, so a female only prize allows a spot light to shine on women - only women - for a little while.
My original comment did give you bigger praise for the points you highlight in the first part of your blog post, but I reduced them to a smiley due to the epic length of my comment.
From my female perspective, it appears you have wrapped your dismay at women only prizes in positive pro-women writers commentry - a sort of Trojan horse of support as a justification for questioning the notion of a female only prize. I guess I should have come right out and said that rather than attempting to back door orifice you (being humorous here, not intellectual).
I didn't object to your argument, per se, merely asked why argue with no data?
I'd like to see data. I like data :)
In theory, a women's only prize is sexist - this is your Trojan horse point, yes?
You point out how males are a minority in the production of fiction, so, statistically, shouldn't it follow that the majority of all prize winners be women? - or are we saying that the smattering of male writers who exist but who go on to dominate, for eg. the Booker, are somehow - against the odds - much better writers than women?
Very recently, there've been successes for women - but this weighting has not been a pattern historically.
In summary, we're on the same side. I think the problem lies with publishers sub-genre-ing women for profit - not giving them their intellectual credit, not marketing men and women equally, and perpetuating a need for a separate prize.
It boils down to how society diminishes women's achievements.
The one other point that did annoy me was when you wrote, regardless of being factually accurate in statistical terms, you (men) are a minority in fiction. Statisticaly speaking, the odds are still in your favour, and to this woman, the tone of your post comes over as patronising rather than balanced; a grabbing of the feminist torch to burn down a feminist prize in the excuse of shedding light.
Hope this is a convincing response.
Thanks for elaborating, Rachel. I feel very uncomfortable that you've interpreted what I've written here as evidence of some kind of sexist or anti-feminist agenda. If the tone of my post seemed patronising, I apologise; that wasn't my intention.
A women-only prize is sexist, by any definition of the word (A.S. Byatt is on my side with that, at least), but that's not my point.
My dismay, if you can call it that, is that the Women's Prize for Fiction puts a barrier between me and books I may well be interested in reading. Replacing the Chick-Lit tag with a Woman's Fiction one doesn't help, and adding a Baileys sticker to the front cover only makes it worse. It adds up to a case of "Move along, son, nothing for you here." And that annoys me. Maybe I'm entirely alone in feeling that way - in which case, great, who cares what I think? But if other men, and maybe even women (I know plenty of women who don't like being told what they 'should' read), feel the same, then the Prize is counter-productive.
Perhaps I should have asked, What's the difference between good writing and women's writing? The prize implies there is one. I disagree.
Incidentally, you say I stated that men are in the minority in terms of the production of fiction. I don't think that's true - either in terms of the statement itself or me saying it. Men are definitely in the minority in terms of reading fiction, though.
I think, broadly speaking, we're on more or less the same page. I'm sure there are plenty of books I'd enjoy but will probably never read because they aren't marketed well and I either won't hear about them or won't realise they're the type of book I like. And I don't see this prize doing much to help.
I'm very happy to be proved wrong though.
Just some things I'm thinking as I'm reading this (and thanks Dan, Rachel and all for a lively debate):
I saw Danuta's blog/speech and tweeted a link to it, adding I didn't like 'diddums'. The reason is cos I think there are plenty of well-meaning non-sexist people out there who are questioning why we need the prize, and fantastic - Danuta answered it from her POV and extensive experience - but saying 'diddums' to those inquiring/debating/talking/expressing doubt about the need for the prize felt patronising, to me.
I'm not bothered that Baileys are sponsoring the prize, it's just a big name with big money. Same as Orange. (Would prefer it to be wine, or gin, just because I want to win it one day and you maybe get a case of it with the cash.)
(I suddenly feel like I have no morals or values...)
I've never felt that prizes just for women support a notion that women can't win prizes in awards for both sexes. It never entered my head.
I guess the thing that is the biggest shame, if that's the right word, is that this prize and its sponsor make you, Dan, feel less inclined to read the books on the list.
"A women-only prize is sexist, by any definition of the word (A.S. Byatt is on my side with that, at least), but that's not my point."
- I used to agree with this, but men and women would have to have total equality before this could be true. As it is, we live in a patriarchal society where everything is biased towards men, therefore women are a marginalised group who lack power in society, as such, are justified in having a separate prize. (Read up on post-colonial and feminist theory).
You mentioning A. S. Byatt being on your side reminded me of the NZ cartoonist Al Nisbet who was in the news last week - he said his cartoon couldn't have been racist because he had two Maori mates who thought it was funny. (http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/columnists/8749998/Cartoonist-hits-back-over-racist-drawings). My point being, one woman saying something doesn't make it right for all women. Byatt is in a very privileged position - not a typical one. She also uses her initials rather than Antonia - because it benefits her to be taken seriously intellectually to present herself without gender.
It's a complex thing and I'm sure, given an essay to tease out the nuances of the argument, you'd write a great piece about it.
I hate the fact that women aren't given the respect intellectually for their fiction that men writing the same stuff are. I dislike the marketing. There are too many things I dislike...
There's much to be said in praise of publishers like Salt and publishers who do make the effort to present women's fiction on an equal footing with men's. But there's much to be done about the marketing and segregation of women and men's fiction - this is, I think, the area in need of your focus - take down the difference, then let's have the same prizes.
I can see absolutely you don't want to offend - I'm only wanting to show you how it can feel for a woman to have a man stating what's best for her.
We both want equality, Dan, and that's the good thing.
Baileys is smooth and intoxicating, just like me!
I'm not keen on special competitions for women. I think it somehow implies the winner is 'a good writer considering she's a woman' and that women simply can't compete with men.
I don't like that 'women's fiction' is now a genre. Seems there are children's books, YA books, women's books and then real proper books for grown up men!
"I guess the thing that is the biggest shame, if that's the right word, is that this prize and its sponsor make you, Dan, feel less inclined to read the books on the list."
Yes, that's probably the best word(s) for it- "less inclined". It's not going to put me off reading them, but it won't have the same effect as a recommendation from a friend (male or female) whose taste in books I understand and trust. Still, after this I'm sure I'll pay more attention to the award, even just from a heightened sense of curiosity, so in a roundabout way maybe it's done what it was supposed to.
I will keep my fingers crossed that justice prevails and you win the Bombay Sapphire Prize for Writing, which will have been be launched just in time for your first novel.
"I'm only wanting to show you how it can feel for a woman to have a man stating what's best for her"
Again, apologies if that's how it came across - I've tried to avoid any hint of didacticism here; my aim's been to question some of the thinking behind the award and seek other viewpoints, not tell anybody how things should be.
As I was writing that reference to AS Byatt's feelings regarding the prize, I suspected it was a can of worms I should leave unopened! Of course, it is an interesting side-issue when writers choose to use their initials rather than their full names. But, while it may be the case with Byatt, it's not always down to a writer trying to disguise their gender (which is a ploy about as effective as a man putting balloons up his jumper in order to pass as a woman). I have three AL Kennedy novels within arm's reach here, and all of them use cover quotes that use "her" or "she", so the illusion lasts all of five seconds.
Authors can also choose to use initials as a way of putting a little distance between their everyday identity and their authorial one, without going as far as selecting a pseudonym. Or it may be there's already another writer using that same (full) name. And other reasons, too, I'm sure.
As I said to Teresa, this exercise has meant that I will take more of an interest in the prize than I originally set out with, which is good. However, with a shortlist featuring three household names (Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson), and only one who I'd never heard of and doesn't seem to already be a bestseller (Maria Semple), this year's award has left me unconvinced that it's doing much to shine a light on overlooked female authors.
Let's see where the Baileys Prize takes us!
"I think it somehow implies the winner is 'a good writer considering she's a woman' and that women simply can't compete with men."
There's definitely a sense that a special allowance is being made. As Rachel points out, the context is important, though, and I'm sure the organisers don't mean it to carry that implication. But whether the average person on the street understands that, who can say?
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