Are Literary Awards Biased Against Books About Women?

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The VIDA count has exposed persistent gender disparities in prestigious literary publications’ bylines — but what happens once books are published, sent into the world, and made ready for critical consumption and evaluation? Does a bias remain?

Novelist Nicola Griffith set out to answer to this question by looking at the genders of both author and subject in the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, the Hugo Award (for science fiction and fantasy) and the Newbery Medal (for children’s literature) in the past decade and a half.

What she discovered goes even deeper than a byline count. Unfortunately, it’s not simply books by women that are ignored by prize committees, but also books about women. In all the major prizes Griffith surveyed, books by women with primarily female subjects got seriously short shrift, while books by men and about men notably dominated.

One of the social trends feminist critics of the current literary culture have long decried is that stories about women, no matter how they’re written or packaged, are too often seen as a special interest, something that would appeal only to women readers, while male-penned books about men are treated as “universal.” There is a smart argument to be made that says that old dynamic is changing, but clearly the prizes don’t yet reflect any sort of major change.

Anecdotally, my strong impression has always been that men and women who are avid readers don’t discriminate by gender as much, but men who dip into book-reading more casually tend to favor the big “male” book of the moment. They’re more likely to grab a hot Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, or Thomas Pynchon novel than a Jennifer Egan or Meg Wolitzer novel, no matter how buzzy the latter is.

But none of these observations or arguments about men’s reading habits is exactly scientific, whereas Griffith’s hard data about prize committees can’t be disputed. And Griffith drew a clear conclusion from her own research, noting that the disparity was far less pronounced for the Newbery award. She concluded, therefore, that girls were fair territory, but women were not:

At the top of the prestige ladder, for the Pulitzer Prize women wrote zero out of 15 prize-winning books wholly from the point of view of a woman or girl. Zero. For the prize that recognises “the most distinguished fiction by an American author,” not a single book-length work from a woman’s perspective or about a woman was considered worthy. Women aren’t interesting, this result says. Women don’t count.

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It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to literary prizes, 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.

Jessica Valenti devoted a recent Guardian column to the problem of men who only consume culture about and by men, a phenomenon she had begun noticing recently, everywhere from Twitter to podcasts.

And like it or not, your taste in music, books, television or art says something about you: it sends a message about what you think is worth your time, what you think is interesting and who you think is smart. So if the only culture you pay attention to is created by men, or created by white people, you are making an explicit statement about who and what is important. Part of the problem is that while art or books that white men put out is portrayed as universally appealing, culture produced by women or people of color is seen as specific to their gender or racial identity.

Our everyday habits and choices about what’s “important” and worth discussing may have a bleed-up effect in terms of prizes. While dynamite franchises like The Hunger Games and Mad Max make a strong case for women’s stories as universally appealing ones, the effect hasn’t quite reached more highbrow circles yet. This fall will see the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s newest book, Purity, about a young woman. One hopes that the cranky king of literary discussion-starting might help make readers realize that the stories of women are equally prize-worthy as those of men, regardless of who writes them.