In 1996, Kate Mosse established what is now the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in response to the 1991 Booker Prize all-male shortlist (this was prior to the release of longlisted titles) in a year when 60% of novels published were written by females. Since then, the prize has been subjected to criticism over the decision to make it a women only award, criticism that has only increased in recent years as Hilary Mantel and Eleanor Catton have gone on to win the Booker from shortlists which had gender parity. Unfortunately today’s longlist has demonstrated exactly why the Women’s Fiction Prize is so important.
Let’s start with a positive and offer huge congratulations to Karen Joy Fowler for the wonderful We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (a novel overlooked – in my opinion – by the Bailey’s Prize earlier this year); Siri Hustvedt (one of the first Americans to be considered) for The Blazing World, which is high on my TBR, and to Ali Smith for her forthcoming how to be both. To make the Booker Prize longlist is a huge achievement, to do so in a year when you’re one of three women (on a longlist of thirteen) is nothing short of incredible.
The problem with drawing attention to the gender of the writers on any longlist is that it inevitably leads people to question whether you would prefer to have ‘the best’ books on the list, regardless of gender, or gender parity. There are two problems with this: firstly, as Linda Grant pointed out on Twitter earlier today, is that it suggests that men are writing better novels than women, which simply isn’t true and secondly, the underlying factor is that prizes, and indeed commentary on literature, have been skewed towards men for decades. Whether readers want to acknowledge this bias or not, it exists; writing created by women is still considered lesser to that of their male counterparts.
Let’s take one particular example on this year’s list, ‘Us’ by David Nicholls. I haven’t read the book as it’s one of several on the list not yet published. However, I have read Nicholl’s previous novels, ‘Starter for Ten’ and ‘One Day’. Perhaps Nicholls has changed style for his latest work (please comment and let me know if you’ve read it) but if it is similar to his previous work then my question is this: Where is Jojo Moyes? Why isn’t she included on the list? My guess would be that she wasn’t submitted by her publishers. Why? Because looking at past longlists she wouldn’t stand a chance of making the final thirteen as her work would be considered too commercial.
And then there’s the question of what is submitted. Imprints are allowed one submission unless they’ve had a longlisted title within the last five years, in which case the rules are as follows:
2 submissions – publishers with 1 or 2 longlisting(s)
3 submissions – publishers with 3 or 4 longlistings
4 submissions – publishers with 5 or more longlistings
Any authors previously shortlisted are also eligible to submit their latest book in addition to those submitted by their publisher.
Imagine you work for a publisher and are one of the people responsible for deciding what goes forward to represent the company you work for. You’re making this decision knowing the prestige that this prize holds; knowing that a shortlisting at the least would allow you to publish the books of a number of lesser known writers who deserve a wider audience. You’ve two books in your hand – one by a woman and one by a man – both of equal quality but well, one’s already garnered more reviews in the broadsheets and you’ve studied previous shortlists and the winner’s table. Who do you choose?
What are the solutions? No surprises here that I don’t have any straight forward answers. In an ideal world all judging would be done anonymously. It’s clear from those quizzes that do the rounds on social media every so often that people can’t actually tell the difference between paragraphs written by men and those composed by women. For this to be possible though, the judging panel would have to exist in a cultural void for months and that’s unrealistic. However, during a brief conversation with the publisher Scott Pack on Twitter this afternoon, he suggested two things that could be implemented, although both have their issues.
The first was that the judging panel should have gender parity. Sounds easy but prize panels are often made up of an odd number of people so the chair can have the casting vote on split decisions. In the case of the Booker, there are five judges and a chair. This year the gender split is 4/2 male/female. Making this an even split on its own is not going to solve the underlying issue but it would be one step towards addressing it.
The second was that submissions should also be equally divided between genders. Now, as you can see from the guidelines above, that isn’t possible in the case of many imprints who are allowed an odd number of submissions and as the judges also have a huge amount of books to read in a relatively short time period (160 in six months this year) doubling the subscriptions from those imprints who haven’t had a longlisted book in the past five years sounds like a ridiculous thing to do. However, as long as the genders are neither considered nor represented equally, perhaps allowing all imprints to submit two books as long as one is by a female writer and the other by a male is a way to try and address the imbalance. It would no doubt mean that imprints with a large number of previously longlisted titles would have to be restricted to submitting fewer titles but surely it’s good for the industry to have greater breadth and for the small presses to compete on a slightly more balanced field? You only need to look at the recent success of Galley Beggars and Salt to see that small independent publishers are putting out interesting, high quality work.
It’s a shame that I’ve felt compelled to write this post in 2014 in a year when #readwomen2014 has raised the profile of female writers; when book shops are working to ensure that there’s gender parity on their display tables; when so many good books by female writers are being published, but it shows us that the fight is far from won.