Women’s Literary Prizes: What’s Not to Like?

Betty Friedan creative work d00140b4732e9537de970c5c359fc302

I often tire of gender issues.  Don’t we all?  By the time I passed a Certain Big Birthday, I hoped I would no longer worry about equal pay for equal work, legal abortion, or free day care on demand. But the battle continues:   Republican politicians, including the circus of very strange Republican presidential candidates, threaten to withdraw funding for Planned Parenthood and criminalize abortion.  Reproductive control is the tipping point of women’s freedom.

As if that weren’t enough to make us anxious, the gender struggle continues even in the literary world.

I am a fan of the Orange Prize for the best novel by a woman written in English, which is now  called The Baileys Women’s Prize.  This year, I’m rooting for Elizabeth Strout’s I Am Lucy Barton (which I wrote about here). Without the Orange Prize, I would never have discovered Helen Dunmore.

But the need for the prize goes deeper than to introduce me to Dunmore’s work.  The award-winning novelist Nicola Griffiths, author of Hild, did a study on the last 15 years’ results for six fiction awards: Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, Hugo Award, and Newbery Medal.  When it comes to literary prizes, more men than women win, and when women do win, the subject of the narrative is usually male.  She writes,

…the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women. Either this means that women writers are self-censoring, or those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring. Certainly the results argue for women’s perspectives being considered uninteresting or unworthy. Women seem to have literary cooties.

Women are divided on the issue of women’s prizes.   A recent panel discussion on International Women’s Day, called “What sex is your bookshelf?”and sponsored by the Man Booker Prize, sparked a debate. According to the Bookseller, the novelist Lionel Shriver, winner of the Orange Prize for her novel, We Need to Think About Kevin, said during the discussion that she doesn’t see the need for a women’s prize.

This whole thing of treating women specially, as if they need special help and special rules, is problematic and obviously backfires. It is the big downside to the Orange Prize. Having won it, I never want to seem ungrateful, and I don’t bad mouth the Orange Prize. Kate Mosse who runs it is very approachable on how the prize has its problematic side. But I would still feel perfectly comfortable saying it is not as meaningful to me to have won the Orange Prize as say it would have been to win the Booker. Most people who win that prize surely say the same thing: you have eliminated half the human race from applying. …I took the money! But there is this problem of suggesting that we need help, that men have to leave the room and then we’re prize worthy.

Well, this is eccentric, but Shriver also outrageously said that International Women’s Day is “creepy.”  Shriver is a stunning writer, of course, but I must ask this question:  WHAT WAS SHE DOING ON THE INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY PANEL?

On the panel, Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature at the University of London, defended the Bailey Women’s Prize and International Women’s Day.  “I believe both are necessary because we have not yet achieved equality. When we do achieve equality then it will be nice to have a world in which those are not necessary.”

Thank God for a sensible take on a sensitive issue.

Even on a local level, the issue of special prizes for women is debated.  A female editor friend, very feminine but male-oriented,  laughed at the local women’s journalism awards and said they didn’t matter. (The men didn’t laugh, doubtless because they’d never heard of them.)  But  I must confess, I garnered several local  prizes over the years. Two were from women’s organizations.

Did I disdain these women’s awards?  No.  I am honored.  Sure, I wasn’t a war correspondent, but writing on women’s issues requires its own kind of toughness.  You would be surprised how many enemies you make when you write on sex discrimination cases or abortion.  Whether the prizes were from co-ed associations or women’s organizations, no money changed hands. They gave me framed certificates or plaques, always useless, which perhaps end up in boxes or the garage.   The prizes look good on my resume.  My husband recently reminded me of a prize I’d forgotten. We got a fancy dinner, but no certificates!

In England, the big literary prizes, The Booker Prize and the Baileys Prize, get lots of attention.We all like the glamor of the longlist and the shortlist, and the gossip and the scandal.  Somebody always says the wrong thing somewhere.  We don’t have much of that in the American papers.  I guess people aren’t interested in literary awards here.

I do have a couple of observations on the British prizes.  I would say both the Man Booker and the Baileys have changed their emphasis in the 2010s.  I have read 11 of the Orange Prize winners  over the years, but since 2014, the prize has gone to so-called “experimental” novels.  I felt an instant rapport with all the mainstream publishers who rejected Elmear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, and discovered I have a very limited tolerance for Ali Smith’s prose: “and now me falling upward/ at the rate of 40 horses dear God old .Fathermother please spread extempore.”

The Man Booker Prize has also gone astray, in my opinion. It has  been awarded to historical novels since 2012.  Why historical novels?  Whatever happened to brilliant, poetic literary fiction? Does it have to go to the Tudors or prisoners of war very year?   Give it to Elizabeth Strout or Tessa Hadley.   For God’s sake, they’re great writers of extraordianry lyrical prose.  And they’re women.

What do you think about women’s prizes?  Pro or con?

9 thoughts on “Women’s Literary Prizes: What’s Not to Like?

  1. Can’t stand women’s prizes. Can’t stand unisex prizes. Meaningless tributes to the fashionable, never to anything I’d want to read. But then I can’t stand modern literary fiction, and stick mainly to times past. A contrarian viewpoint! Though I think I might try Pamela Hansford Johnson, you make her sound intriguing…

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    • Diana, you are so strong-minded! I don’t read a lot of modern fiction either, though. I adore Pamela Hansford Johnson. Try the Helena trilogy…

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  2. Very thoughtful post Kat and I’m with Sarah Churchwell on this one – Shriver is very very silly…. But I have to say I parted company with most of the prizes long ago (probably when Margaret Atwood finally won the Booker she’d deserved for years). I do find myself wondering how many of the books will stand the test of time and I prefer to seek out my own treasures!

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    • I’ve been disappointed by the choices in recent years myself, though I really have found out about some fascinating writers, sometimes on the longlists. I preferred the twentieth century Booker winners: Rushdie, Brookner, Swift, etc. The Orange Prize lists are fascinating, perhaps more open to different genres! But then again I haven’t read the last two offerings, though I tried.

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  3. I find this interesting as for next fall I’m planning two different courses: at OLLI at AU my idea for “19th century Women of Letters” has been approved. I’ve suggested my idea for the OLLI at Mason: Booker Prize books: a marketplace tool or niche?”

    I’m all for anthologies of women’s writing (poetry, fiction, non-fiction, art) because anthologies of everyone’s writing ends up 90% men and the one chosen by a woman fits a male aesthetic. The Booker prize is one where you see more women winning, but as this study shows they win when they don’t have a female at the center and her story, no women’s novels as such wanted even by women. The men don’t like them. So yes I’m for the Orange Prize. I read the Women’s Review of Books each time it comes out – every 2 months a skinny periodical. All books reviewed by women and most by women. The LRB, NYRB and New Yorker have their resident women writers writing about women’s books — on the whole all three are 90% written by male about books males like.

    What we need to do is rename the “everyone’s” anthology from universal humankind to men’s anthologies.

    Cynically of course these are selling tools as the title of my second coming course suggests. On the first unless I set apart and chose women’s books, I seem to never get to do as the mainstream masterpieces are mostly by men. Talk of George Eliot and you hear only of Middlemarch. Demoralizingly most people today still don’t read Virginia. The truth is Austen is very much a Penelope Fitzgerald: literally limited in scope and story matter.

    I’m just now embarked on blogs on women artists. Go to your next impressionists show and tell me if there is a woman artist or anyone beyond the usual token two. Pre-Raphaelites. Women painted impressionism and Pre-Raphaelitism but they also had their own genres, just as good. Unless I labeled it and went for women they vanish.

    And the closing of Planned Parenthood, the defunding of reproductive health and control by and for women is central to all this too.

    Thanks for citing this book, Kathy, I’ll look into it.

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    • Oh, the courses sound fascinating! You are so right about anthologies, too. I bought a Norton Anthology of Women’s Writing because there were so many selections BEFORE the 19th century I hadn’t read. And you’re right, the others are men’s literature anthologies. I never thought about it that way.

      I am fascinated by the idea that women write from men’s points of view to win the prizes, though I can think of many exceptions. I remember your saying once that Hillary Mantel, good though Wolf Hall is, won for a historical novel about men than for her women’s writing. I prefer her earlier novels about women!

      Yes, women’s classics are relegated to the books of Elaine Showalter. And I don’t think Middlemarch IS Eliot’s best book, but it is true that it is the only one people mention. I prefer Daniel Deronda.

      All prizes have their value, and I have found out about many good writers through prizes. I don’t see why the Baileys Women’s Prize is controversial. There are LBGT awards and I doubt anyone dares to question those!

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