Do we need female-only book prizes?

In recent years, female-only book awards have become a staple of the literary landscape, providing visibility and recognition to female authors who have long been underrepresented in book reviews and book awards. However, debate still exists within the industry as to whether such awards are important and necessary tools in dismantling gender bias, or little more than well meaning acts of regression.

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Stella Miles Franklin, the namesake of two of Australia’s major literary prizes. Image: Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission.

The UK was one of the first countries to launch a major female-only literary award, with the creation of the Orange Prize (now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction) in 1996. The award was instigated as a direct response to the Booker Prize shortlist of 1991 that failed to recognise any female authors.

Sixteen year later, Australia gained the Stella Prize, a major women-only literary award set up in 2012, after female authors failed twice in the space of three years to make the short-list of leading national book award the Miles Franklin. After fifty years of competition, there was a distinct irony in the fact that the prize (named after author Stella Miles Franklin, a female forced into writing under a male nom de plume) had only been won by thirteen women.

The Stella Prize was created as a defiant and proactive response to the bias and lack of recognition shown to female authors by book critics and literary awards, and since its incarnation, has developed into a thriving movement that celebrates, supports, and facilitates discussion around female-authored Australian writing.

But in spite of this, not everyone is supportive of gendered literary prizes, with some – including female authors – decrying them as little more than patronising acts of regression.

Lionel Shriver, who won the Orange Prize in 2005 for her novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, has criticised her award as ‘problematic’, saying to trade site The Bookseller ‘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.’

Booker-prize winning author of Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie, has also publically dismissed female literary awards, deeming them as ‘unnecessary’, and claiming that they put female writers in a ‘ghetto’.

In an ideal world with no glass ceiling, there wouldn’t be a need for female-only literary prizes. However, sexism, prejudice, and bias (unconscious or otherwise) do unfortunately exist – including in the book world.

Statistics compiled annually by VIDA, an organisation supporting women in the literary arts, found widespread gender inequality in many major literary publications, particularly in regard to book reviews, which act as crucial influencers on economic success and public recognition. In 2010, the London Review of Books was found to have reviewed only 68 titles written by women, compared to 195 by men. In the same year, the New York Review of Books fared even more dismally, with male authors writing 83% of reviewed books.

Writing under a male or gender-ambiguous pen name has continued to be a business tactic employed by female authors long after Miles Franklin wrote her final novel. J.K. Rowling was famously dissuaded from using her first name Joanne on the covers of the Harry Potter series; her publishers fearing young male readers wouldn’t want to read books written by a woman.

In over 100 years of competition, only fourteen women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and only seventeen women have been awarded the Man Booker Prize after nearly 50 years.

Female literary prizes function in the same way as other major book awards: boosting visibility and book sales for authors who win or are short-listed, and providing public recognition for excellence in writing. Prizes such as the Stella encourage the consumption of female-written literature, and shine a light on work by female authors who are too often dismissed and overlooked.

Women-only literary awards provide a valuable and important tool in dismantling gender disparity in the publishing industry, and supporting and encouraging female voices and stories. And until sexism, bias, and inequality are eradicated, female-authored work needs to be actively championed and celebrated.

Are you a supporter of female-only literary prizes? Do you think that they play an important role in the publishing landscape? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!

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