When women win literary awards for fiction it’s usually for writing from a male perspective and/or about men. The more prestigious the award, the more likely the subject of the narrative will be male.
I analysed the last 15 years’ results for half a dozen book-length fiction awards: Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, Hugo Award, and Newbery Medal.1
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 2 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.
At the bottom of the prestige ladder—judging by the abundance of articles complaining that YA isn’t fit fare for grownups—for the Newbery Medal, awarded to “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children,” women wrote wholly from girls’ perspectives 5 times—and men wrote so 3 times. Girls, then, are interesting. Girls count.
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.
The literary establishment doesn’t like books about women. Why? Is it connected to the Cartesian dualist mind/body divide in which women are viewed as very much on the body/bad side of the scale rather than the mind/good?
The answer matters. Women’s voices are not being heard. Women are more than half our culture, if half the adults in our culture have no voice, half the world’s experience is not being attended to, learnt from, or built upon. Humanity is only half what we could be.
Assuming the data say what I think they say, that women have literary cooties, why? And, more importantly, how do we get rid of them?
ETA: Some more statistics and a place to sign up to help count.
- These are awards that, in my opinion, influence the author’s subsequent book sales and/or career arcs. It’s subjective: I haven’t pulled together reliable data on book sales pre- and post-awards. (Though here are links to three articles which include cherry-picked numbers and anecdata on the National Book Award, the Man Booker, and the Hugo Award.)
- My method: collate the gender of the writer (I assumed that when reviews talked about an author as “she” or “he” that author identifies as female or male respectively) with that of their protagonist/s (whether in first or third person); sometimes based on my own reading of the book, more often on reviews.
- When the gender of the point-of-view character could be called arguable (Middlesex, Ancillary Justice) I’ve counted it as Unsure. Assign those how you like.
- The Pulitzer covers 16 years because one year there was No Award.
- 4 US, 1 UK, and 1 international English-speaking. 5 adult and 1 YA. 4 or 5 (depending who you talk to) ‘literary’ and 1 or 2 ‘genre’. The comparisons, therefore, are imperfect.
- I have no doubt I’ve made many mistakes. Feel free to offer corrections in the comments.
- Nothing would please me more than for others to check my numbers on these awards and/or to take a look at other awards using the same criteria.
2 In either first or third person. ETA: I counted Strout’s Olive Kitteridge as Both because at least part of it is from a man’s POV.
95 thoughts on “Books about women don’t win big awards: some data”
I think that back before the dawn of history, women ran things. For one thing, they could have babies and it wasn’t obvious what men had to do with it. Women were such a powerful force that it scared everybody, and out of that fear came patriarchy. We have to control our awe in the face of power with fences, brainwashing and co-option. It’s just a thought.
Nice bit of research & charting, Nicola.
As I scrolled down and saw that female authors & characters predominate in the Newbery Award, my first thought wasn’t as optimistic as your own “Girls count” but that this reflects the cultural association (viewed as relegation) of women to children and their care & upbringing. Of course girls count, and of course, paltry budgets for maternal care, infant care, and schools notwithstanding, children are arguably The most important segment of the human population given that they Are the next half century or more of human history. Those who shepherd children to adulthood need to be the best paid, not the least. But we’re still staggering along under the weight of the shell we’ve formed in prior centuries. The accretion of new chambers is active and ongoing but doesn’t seem nearly quick enough.
I’d love to see these stats expanded* to include the Nebula Awards and many others, nominees compared with award winners, and literary awards from cultures in which English is not the first language.
* perhaps by someone not currently working on a major novel we’re all salivating to read!
Barbara: yes. I see where it comes from. But how do we fix it?
Paul: I think expanding the data—to more awards, to shortlists and longlists as well as winners—would give us more insight, but we need many hands at this. Not, as you’ve said, just one person who already has a real job :)
Here’s the data for the last fifteen winners of the Carnegie Medal, UK award for children’s/YA novels. I’ve read nine of them, so data on the other six is from Wiki pages.
Women writing about women/girls: 2
Women writing about men/boys: 2
Women writing about both: 1 (I’m counting Siobhan Dowd’s Bog Child as a “both” – it’s mostly from a male character’s POV but there are flashbacks/visions from a female character’s POV)
Men writing about men/boys: 5 (including Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, from the POV of a male cat)
Men writing about women/girls: 1
Men writing about both: 3
Unsure: 1 (Sharon Creech’s Ruby Holler – one of the ones I haven’t read. Looks like it could be a “both” from the plot summary, but not sure)
Fascinating! Awareness is always the beginning of change. I posted this on my FB and tagged some influential women for opinions. Beginning to examine what we find interesting and “worthy” is a great way to open the field to new perspectives. Kudos to you for some great preliminary detective work.
I don’t actually have children. You don’t either. That was just an illustration. You have done more for women just by having an imagination and writing. On the one hand, what are prizes anyway? Writers congratulating other writers. On the other hand, writing is not valuable unless people pay for it and give it prizes. the power of the reader is to buy books and recommend them to her friends. I don’t know what to do about the fact that mcp assholes sit on prize committees.
One aspect of the data jumps out at me – women write about women, girls, men, boys, everyone. Men write overwhelmingly about men. It’s not at all surprising, but it is sad. It’s not just the women who are uninterested or self-censoring.
Toby, thanks. As you say, it’s just a beginning.
Barbara, it’s not just the juries. I think this problem starts earlier in the process.
I think one reason the Newbery awards have better gender balance (at least in your sample) is that they are selected primarily by children’s librarians. They are exposed daily to the audience for these books, and I suspect that the kids’ reactions have some influence on their votes. At any rate I’ve found the Newbery medal to be a fairly reliable guide to a good read. That doesn’t necessarily apply to the Pulitzer.*
The disparate representation of “women” and “girls” as characters might be related to the topic of the book Reviving Ophelia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reviving_Ophelia). Once a girl hits puberty the rules of the game seem to change. The heroine has to quit being heroic and go look for a husband.
[*] disclaimer: I’m not a literary critic. I’m just a guy who wound up programming computers because nothing else that paid cash money was as much fun.
I thought it was a well-known social fact, that boys & men don’t read or watch stories about girls & women. They’re unable and/or unwilling to make the imaginative leap to place in that protagonist’s life, the way women & girls do to read Hamlet and Oliver Twist, the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books. Cooties is as good a word as any.
Tom Vinson is right: the Newbery is different because it reflects the tastes of readers, rather than being awarded by a council of probably mostly men, to whom it would never occur to read about a woman. But girls read more than boys and apparently nowadays they are more likely to choose a book in which girls make the story go ’round. Maybe there’s the hope: that those girls will keep wanting books with female protagonists as they grow up, and some of them may find their way onto nominating committees. And I think it would help if we stopping instantly correlating women with children and childbirth. We can build bridges and blow up rogue planets too, you know.
Nicola, great work, thanks for doing it.
Tom, Anna: thank you. As you’ve both focused on children’s/YA you might like this post from Ladybusiness, full of numbers on many of the category’s awards. Definitely worth a look. Much more detailed than mine. I’m jealous! I didn’t know it existed until yesterday…
Gavin, thanks. Graphs are not my forte but I got really, really tired of no-one graphing out the obvious so, hey, I gave it a go.
One inference I make from these award stats is that men as well as women must have read, admired, and voted for works by and about women simply in order for those books to have won.
Well-known it may be but a fact it’s not, if we’re to assume that ‘boys & men’ means all. My whole reading life I’ve enjoyed and often preferred stories by and about women and girls. My young sons love all the stories we read to them, of which most are written by women and most have a girl as the protagonist or girls among the central characters. Many men I know and know of with whom I feel a connection — and not just in the science fiction field — lean similarly.
As satisfying as it may be to throw the whole benighted gender into the dustbin, if we disregard the fact that so many men actually do value and learn from women’s experiences and perspectives then I fear we’re making it harder to achieve that sane world we envision.
Paul, Anna: You might both find this post on the topic useful.
The spread between Newbery and Pulitzer could also reflect a culture where women are infantilized. Writing about females as youth conforms better to social norms expected by readers. I wonder if it may also be related to the mother death trope where women are traditionally written off as domestics and uninteresting after reaching childbearing age. The death of the mother (i.e. grown women) is often the start of narratives of personal growth. Thanks for doing this analysis. It speaks volumes.
To better determine potential gender dominance among YA author awardees, I cheerfully suggest looking at Prinz Award as it is YA specific. (Books for age-market levels younger than YA most often receive the Newbery.) That said, thank you for your efforts and contribution to this important conversation.
Erika, yes, that’s a definite possibility, but there are so many possibilities. Only more data will start to give us clues.
Cynthia, you might want to read this post from Ladybusiness about gender in YA awards.
I think everyone should read it.
Very helpful indeed to have subcutaneously known facts spelt out in a simple graph. We are currently broadcasting a reading of Siri Hustvedt’s novel “The Blazing World”, and already the first hate mails by males have arrived. It is still very difficult for both genders to meet female concerns with the same respect and sympathy.
The Printz Award counts are as follows (I did this a few weeks ago):
Printz Award Protagonists: 10 male, 4 female, 2 with both genders.
Winners: 9 male, 7 female
8 male authors with male protagonists. 4 female authors with female protagonists. 0 male authors with female protagonists. 2 female authors with male protagonists. 1 male author with mixed protagonists. 1 female author with mixed protagonists.
16 years is the life of the award.
I wonder about all the books that are nominated for these awards–are the divisions the same or are they more evenly distributed before the winners are announced?
And also: I’m not sure how this could be calculated, but what about all books written? Are there more men writing about men/boys than any other category?
Audra, I don’t know. I quailed at the thought of counting so many things! But I’ve made a list of things that need collating and analysing here: https://nicolagriffith.com/2015/05/28/books-about-women-dont-win-awards-solutions/
Does Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Pulitzer Prize winner 2009) not count as a book by a woman about a woman?
SH, no. I counted it as both as it’s largely from the POV of a man.
The book award I direct, The Story Prize, has had four women winners and seven men. All the books, in my opinion, have been about both men and women–as story collections often are. In our 11 years, we have had 17 male finalists and 16 female. The founder of the prize, Julie Lindsey, and I choose the three finalists each year. Three judges choose the winner. The breakdown of judges has been 19 women and 14 men. I would like a better female/male balance of winners, but that’s how it has turned out so far.
LCDark: Many thanks for that info. Collections are hard to weight in this way. Later, when/if we have volunteers, we can figure out a way to do that. For now ‘both’ seems to be the way to go unless there’s a clear preponderance towards stories about/from the POV of one gender over another—say, for the sake of argument, more than 65%.
4 out of 11 winners works out to about 36%. Better than most :) But, yes, it would be lovely to get closer to parity in the long term.
Actually if you look at the judges for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards (I couldn’t find anything on the Pulitzer Prize) you’ll find that between 2000-14, the MBP had 41 male judges and 36 female judges (hardly a substantial disparity), whilst the NBA (with the omission of the years 2000 and 2004) had both 32 male and female judges. Similarly, the National Book Critics Circle Award currently has 6 male members on the board of directors, and 7 female members (all of whom serve a 3 year term): the Newberry Award currently has 5 male committee members and 10 female members for the 2016 selection. The Hugo Awards however, would be more befitting of your assessment, as between 2000-15, 35 of the judges were male and yet 13 were female. In light of everything mentioned, it would seem rather peculiar to declare that the “literary establishment doesn’t like books about women” as the women’s voice is clearly being heard by both men and women (if not more!).
Tredwards: “The Hugo Awards however, would be more befitting of your assessment, as between 2000-15, 35 of the judges were male and yet 13 were female.”
The Hugo Award is by popular vote by several hundred or more attendees of a convention. Where on earth are you getting these 35 male and 13 female judges from?
tnv: Those would be the Awards Administration members. I’ll admit I shouldn’t have written “judges”.
I would consider Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout to be a book that would fit the “by women and about women/girls” category. Not that having one book – I can’t think of any other – is really that better of a record.
tredwards: I don’t think it’s about the judges. I think the problem lies much farther back in the process. See my next post for more on this.
joao: I counted Olive Kitteridge as Both because at least some of it is from a male POV.
What about Meghan Marshall’s book, A New American Life, on Margaret Fuller that won the Pulitzer for biography in 2014?
Nicola Griffith: Well you yourself wrote that “those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring”; which I find highly unusual in light of the fact that the genders of the judges were either equally represented (National Book Awards) or consisted of more women than men (National Book Critics Circle Award and the Newberry Award). Even if you accepted the conclusion that “The literary establishment doesn’t like books about women”, it cannot be ignored that, on the whole, such an establishment equally consists of both men and women.
Christina: I wasn’t counting non-fiction. (I had to start small; but if we get enough volunteers we can expand to NF.)
tredwards: “Those who judge literary worthiness” are those who judge at all stages: writers who judge what to write, agents what to represent, editors what to acquire, marketers what to support, critics what to review, retailers what to hand sell, publishers what to submit to prizes. That’s why we need masses of data: to take a look at the overarching patterns. Want to help?
It would be interesting to see the gender ratio of the jury deciding who the awards go to, in order to see how these are related.
Kate Reuters Mpis: I already have mentioned the gender ratio of the judges, which you can see in my first comment.
I used to subscribe to the Sunday Times (London), and made a game of counting the books by male and female authors as represented by reviews in the two-page spread devoted each week to paperbacks. I swore I could tell when the regular editor went on holiday/vacation. Suddenly, for a couple of weeks, there would be about equal numbers of male and female authors (to go by their names), and then it would be back to business as usual: one or perhaps two books by women, and then generally the ones with such big names they couldn’t be ignored–Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, and so on. I didn’t count the tiny corner reserved for children’s books; there were more female names there.
By the way — while your page looks great, I find I absolutely cannot read your posts unless I shift the window so that your face is off the screen. To try to read with that person there, too close, staring at me, turns out to be impossible, at least in my case.
So Oliver Kitterage, by Elizabeth Strout, is apparently not a book by a woman about a woman?
I thought it was a well-known social fact, that boys & men don’t read or watch stories about girls & women. They’re unable and/or unwilling to make the imaginative leap to place in that protagonist’s life, the way women & girls do to read Hamlet and Oliver Twist, the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books
Such a daft, sexist and dangerous thought.
A good author with a good story will allow you to experience it however you choose. I remember reading books with female protagonists as a child and feeling no different about them to the male ones, so does nearly everyone I have asked, both male and female.
Other than Harry Potter (which was a cultural phenomena, just like the Hunger Games) the books you mention have a century or more of history behind them to become must read texts whereas most female lead stories have only a few years outside of the romantic fiction genre giants of Austin/Bronte. In the case of those you are seeing the result of decisions made a long time ago over which we have no control now.
Tredwards, you said:
“Nicola Griffith: Well you yourself wrote that “those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring”; which I find highly unusual in light of the fact that the genders of the judges were either equally represented (National Book Awards) or consisted of more women than men (National Book Critics Circle Award and the Newberry Award). Even if you accepted the conclusion that “The literary establishment doesn’t like books about women”, it cannot be ignored that, on the whole, such an establishment equally consists of both men and women.”
The point that you’re missing is that women are as subject to unconscious biases as the product of the society they were raised in as men are. Even women who are highly aware of sexism fall foul of these biases, because they have been taught since birth to view women a certain way. Women get a double whammy, though, because they internalise these lessons, so not only do they look less favourably upon other women than they do men, they look less favourably upon themselves as well.
What we’re dealing with here is not a few poorly chosen judges, but a deep-seated, subtle and ubiquitous bias against women and all things feminine. Take for example the genderisation of toys, and watch the way that young boys react to pink toys, even if that toy is identical in all other respects to the boy’s blue toy. The pink item will be rejected out of hand, not because it is not a suitable toy, but because it is pink. The lesson to reject feminine things and, with them, women, starts very early these days.
I work to support women in science, technology, engineering and maths, where the biases are even worse than in publishing. There is no doubt in my mind that we need full-scale cultural change, and that means accepting that this is not a matter of a few bad apples, but of fundamental iniquities in our culture that every single one of us must identify and address.
mefoly: I’m assuming you’re familiar with the VIDA count. And as for my face, yep, you’re not the first person to mention the looming. At some point I’ll do something about it; right now, though, it’s not at the top of my list :)
Suw: Yes, the bias is foundational. But we can change it, I think. The key is to assemble data from every stage in the process. What kind of data have you gathered for your women in STEM? It might be interesting to compare patterns.
wow, this is so out of control. Is it okay if I share some of these statistics and graphs to my followers on tumblr and twitter?
Share away. No more than 3 graphs, please. And a link to the rest. Even better, a link to what people can *do*: https://nicolagriffith.com/2015/05/28/books-about-women-dont-win-awards-solutions/ This is totally fixable. It’ll just take time and work.
I would be interested in weighted proportions. E.g. Out of 100 potential winners how many fell into your categories? Using these proportions, did a contestant within any of these categories have a higher likelihood of winning? In other words, I can hardly share you indignation that women as the subject/author are underrepresented in prize winning work without knowing how well represented they are in the contestant pool. To be entirely honest, your assertion is very irritating because it lacks perspective. – Separately, as a fellow Seattleite, congratulations on starting a good discussion.
Nicola, the figures for women in STEM are terrible, sadly, and I would probably need a whole series of blog posts to get in to them. The basics are that despite interventions, numbers are not going up the way that they need to, and women still move out of STEM at every inflection point in their career, with very few gaining a senior role. My focus is on creating new role models for women and girls, on the basis that there’s evidence that women need to see female role models more than men need to see male role models.
Jacob, you’re missing some important points here: The argument that there are few women/books about women/girls in the contestant pool is irrelevant, because both the lack of such books — and I would put money on it being a lack not a surfeit — is symptomatic of the broader problem, it is not the cause of the problem.
And the problem is cultural: Women’s stories and interests are given less weight than men’s. You only have to look at Wikipedia to see this is true. 90% of wikipedia’s editors are men, and when it comes to content we see that men and men’s interests are well documented, but women and women’s interests are seriously lacking. There are, for example, extensive pages about porn actresses, but hardly anything on women poets. And in my areas of expertise, there are few well-written pages about women in STEM, and many of the pages about women in STEM are stubs, or poorly written, or are written with a distinct tone that emphasises the woman’s “caring” and “nurturing” nature. (A man in public health reform, for example, is a reformer and an activist, whereas a woman doing the same thing is caring for her community. The differences in language use are fascinating and I’m sure someone could get a PhD out of them.)
So, if women’s stories and interests are deemed unimportant by society — by both men and woman on the whole — then fewer people will write fiction about them. We see prejudice against “chick lit” and romance frequently, often from people who don’t read such books and have no idea whether they are literarily interesting or not. That prejudice some almost certainly from the fact that they focus on how human beings relate to one another. The key to good storytelling is how your characters interact and relate, but when that relationship becomes about romantic love, suddenly it’s not important anymore because that’s girly stuff.
Indeed, we only see arguments about why the manner in which interpersonal relationships are portrayed in fiction is important when that portrayal offends us, for example, Twilight or 50 Shades. And we only seem to see that discussion surface when the portrayal was made by a woman writing in or near the romance genre. There are a boatload of books in science fiction and fantasy, for example, where the fictional relationships are terrible, yet these get a pass because of genre and/or gender of the author.
So the results from all this are that women see that the books getting the prizes are about men, we internalise that, and we write about men. We are subject to the same societal pressures to elevate the male story and subjugate the female story as men, so it’s no surprise that we suffer a little literary Stockholm Syndrome. Books about women don’t sell, we’re told, so if we want commercial success, we are to write about what will sell: Men. And so that’s what happens.
As for what to do about it, data is a good start but the STEM problem has shown that data itself is not enough. We need to reward people who write about women/girls. I have long thought about an Ada Lovelace Day literary award for science fiction that looks to promote books with female protagonists, but currently lack the resources to pull that together. However, maybe it’s something to talk about for next year.
Meantime we need to highlight such books, so that they are easier to find. Perhaps a group blog reviewing just books with women/girls in the lead roles would be a place to start. I’m sure between us there are enough people interested in this area to contribute.
Suw, this is something we should talk about offline, maybe. (Email me via the contact form, okay?)
I hear you about data not being enough. But it’s the place to begin. I’ve been struck by how attention-grabbing the simple charts are. The more of them we have, the clearer the problems–the inflection points, if you like–become. No point pushing in the wrong place. I want us to push where it’ll make a difference.
I suspect this will have to be a many-fronted campaign. First step a double one: raise awareness and increase the data.
This is an interesting topic, but the methodology is a little unsubtle. Looking at the gender of the narrator tells us something, sure, but how about the gender of the antagonists/villains? And why is the narrator going to be the hero, and not just a point of view for telling the story? A more nuanced approach might be to look at the ratio of named male-female characters.
Might it be easier and more expeditious to apply pressure to all literary award presentation committees to seat an equal number of men and women on their panels? I mean the Equal Rights Amendment has yet to be ratified by the number of states required to make it law forty-three years after Congress passed it. (Thank you, Dixie.) I think it might be past due time for a short-cut.
Patrick, it’s not about the judges. The problem lies farther upstream, I think.
Hello Nicola. From lovely cake to this! Thank you for the amazing work and analysis. Although we’re focused on something a lot less prestigious/visible than awards, this reflects the general situation which leads your books to be unique in more than your talent and voice: in character, topic and choice of milieu as well.
This is the Medium version – and it’s observational (I could easily graph what the topics are and featured writers are to back up what I say). https://medium.com/@ASterling/three-reasons-women-s-writing-and-expression-is-less-visible-than-men-s-e0e62b21d101
We will be doing a series of 4 posts crossposted with Book View Cafe and Medium next week about our writer market validation survey. This will deal only with what the writers surveyed would like/what they see some of their barriers as being, and with market information about who readers are, and who potential regular readers and bookbuyers are. I hope you will be interested to read some.
Amy, yes, I’d like to read more when it’s up.
Before going any further let me make it very clear that I agree there is an issue here, a problem that is reflected in markets around the world. However there is also a numbers issue that has an impact on awards.
This was a good piece and raised thought-provoking stuff but is the tip of a darn big iceberg.
While I was still an active independent reviewer, a couple of major publishers in particular were sending me pretty much everything, including plenty way outside of my area of interest. After discussing much the same issue several years ago, I started keeping track of author gender in all new releases being sent to me. That was a new step for me as I normally do not give a rats’ furry backside about the gender of an author – my interest is in the book and whether or not I am enjoying the read. However once I started taking notice of gender, the sheer volume of male authors was miles ahead of the number of female authors in new titles being sent to me. On a purely numerical approach, if there is a far, far greater number of male authors being published then the competition in awards is already greatly weighted towards males simply because of what is being published and a major gender disparity shall result. And in order to determine the degree of any undue gender bias in awards or any other publishing-related issue, this shall need to be analysed in respect of that existing disparity.
I believe this is part of a larger gender-in-publishing issue. The best way to get decision makers to start taking some remedial action where required is to figuratively smack them around the head with indisputable detailed and in-depth analysis. Being able to demonstrate any degree of bias outside of existing disparity is one example. I was an economic statistician before landing on the invalidity scrapheap so I felt I could at least make a real start on compiling the sort of data and analysis needed. And that’s where we immediately run into data problems. The most basic level of information that is going to be needed is detailed publishing data as things like anecdotal evidence simply won’t cut it for that sort of analysis. Short of manually identifying every single publisher in every country of interest and then manually investigating every single release by every one of those publishers is so big a job as to be simply not feasible. I tried doing it for the relatively small overall market here in Australia and even that proved unfeasible for a one-man show to be trying to do. Yet without that sort of analysis I cannot see anything changing.
Ross, we’re on the same page. If I were Empress of the Universe, publishers would automatically count mss. submitted to them: the data they would note would be about diversity, and gender (who wrote, who is the subject) would be a part of that.
From there we could then get percentages of those submissions that were acquired and published. Percentages of those published that were meaningfully supported. That were reviewed. Submitted for awards. Longlisted. Shortlisted. And so forth.
In a perfect world, we’d have data from every stage of the publishing cycle. That’s the only way to really get at the underlying issues–the chokepoints, if you like.
To do that, we need the willing participation of publishers. Until then, though, we’ll do what we can to draw meaningful attention to the things we have access to–enough attention, I hope, to persuade publishers that their participation would be cost-effective for them (as well as, y’know, being a Good Thing).
At the risk of sounding as naive as I actually am, how common is it for publishers to maintain reliable logs of incoming manuscripts? My sense of human nature tells me that the daily routine is often far more casual than that, and that the event horizons surrounding the black holes we call publishers smash a lot of manuscripts to their component smithereens, never to escape back into mundane space – deliberately or accidentally recycled, used for cat pan and bird cage liners, given over to pre-school artists, discovered years later under dust and paperbacks, and so on. But if even a few houses kept fairly competent logs, and if those lists could be matched with those same publishers’ actual catalogs, and if most of the authors could be sexed by their names, then all that would be better than, well, naught.
One thought: I really don’t know how these awards work, but I guess it would be (more?) useful to compare the pools / shortlists or something similar with the actual prizes’ data. I mean, if you would say “Writing about about old Hawaiian men does not bring you an award” it would be (more) obvious that part of the reason may be that there are few books about them. So my question is: is there data about e.g. top 1000 most popular fiction books in the last 15 years (based on sales or mentions in literature press etc.) or about the books that were submitted/recommended to those juries? Because it is possible that the real (and still not much more pleasant) reason may be that there are just too few books about women / girls (but the chance to win with a book about them may be a bit better than this data suggests).
chimie, that’s exactly the kind of data we need but don’t have. We don’t even know what percentage of fiction published every year is by a woman, never mind about a woman…
Paul, as far as I know, not common at all. In fact, I don’t know of any publisher that does it at all. Drives me crazy. There’s no data about anything useful… (Or that’s how it seems to me sometimes.)
Interesting article and comments. In my experience the bias is way farther upstream than even what is submitted to publishers. For a woman writer there’s also the temptation to take the easy way of writing romance. SF conventions seem to have a barrier between unpublished and published writers and the barrier is all the more acute for female writers. The editors don’t seem inclined to chat with us. Some panels are attended almost entirely by women and others almost entirely by men. Romance conference on the other hand are quite welcoming with the pros quite willing to mix with and give pointers to unpublished authors. These pointers are applicable to winning the a Rita award, not a Hugo. It’s easier to talk with editors and agents at Romance conferences. I wonder how many good women writers who’d like to write literary fiction or science fiction end up going into Romance and YA because these genres are more welcoming to women. This year we have the Hugo puppy controversy going on which seems to have been a move against women’s voices. I’m currently reading the nominees for best novel. Two women writers in the bunch and they follow the pattern of having no female protagonists. I often write parallel books with two or more books which are basically the same story but from a different perspective, sometimes male sometimes female. I look forward to comparing the reception of these books once I get them published. I’m going the self publishing route because I couldn’t find any publisher or agent who is a good match for my writing. I intend to persevere and expect you’ll be hearing of me in a few years. I’d be ecstatic to win the Tiptree award. I notice that it’s not included in the analysis Oh wow! I just checked to see that this is Nicola Griffiths blog. I’ve got Hild on the top of my to be read pile. I’ll read it after Ancillary Sword which I need to read for the Hugo voting.
Yep, Nicola Grifffith, that’s me (without the s).
I agree, the bias is upstream. But I’d love to get the data…
Please check my novel Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, winner of the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book, currently published in the U.S. by Open Road. Male author. Female protagonist.
In the absence of exact counts from publishers on the genders of authors and their characters, it might be helpful to compile a list of, say, the 10 most critically acclaimed books by and about men vs. women, then indicate which ones won awards and which were passed over. I realize this represents very inexact science for a number of reasons, including 1) As VIDA has shown, books by men get reviewed more often, and therefore have more opportunities to win critical praise. 2) The point of the exercise would be to see how the “winners” compared to the “losers” which is entirely subjective. For example, you might think Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers” was better than James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird,” but that’s just your opinion. However, it would be an interesting exercise anecdotally. You could even do an online quiz (for extremely well-read social-media users) in which you’d present a list of pairs of books, have them click on which one they liked better, and see how their picks compare to award winners. Again, subjective. But fun! And if you asked players to state their gender, it might even be enlightening.
Is that something you’re willing to do?
Thank you for an excellent article. To me the most glaring fact about the data is that (except for the Newberry Medal) the number of prize-winning books by men about women is consistently zero. Of course there are fewer books written in that category than in any other, which may entirely explain their absence from the awards tables, but is it possible that men are simply LESS ABLE to write quality (read: award caliber) fiction from a female point of view, than women from a male point of view? That even men who are capable of writing brilliantly can’t summon the empathy to convince readers they are looking through a woman’s eyes? I realize this suggestion walks face-first into the stereotypes of “thinky” men vs. “feely” women, but at the extremes of a long-tailed distribution, subtle effects (irrelevant in the bulk) can become dominant.
I don’t have answers–because I don’t have data. My guess, though, is that it’s less about a writer’s ability than others’ perceptions of the worth of that ability.
Hi Nicola, sorry, no. Nor was I instructing you to do it, though! Just *somebody* …
By the way, it’s interesting to note that, looking further back in history, there are at least a handful of classic novels by men about women: Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Anna Karenina, Far from the Madding Crowd … and whatever others I can’t think of at the moment. I don’t know what it means; maybe literary sexism is a 20th-21st century phenomenon or, probably more likely, male novelists so outnumbered women historically that if any books about women were to be written at all it was (often) men by default.
Katy, it would be lovely to have mountains of historical data to scrum through and ponder and theorise about! You could well be right but until an army of PhD students do the work, we can’t know. Sigh.
I don’t come at this as an author but as someone who tells stories for advocacy and as a lifelong voracious reader (who stumbled on this whole thread thanks to Twitter. Short form writing has its uses.)
I see you all calling for more data in the post and comments, as if this is science and you need to make sure you can replicate the results and show statistical significance.
In my advocacy world more data won’t make a big difference to someone who fundamentally disagrees with your premise. Facts don’t change hearts and minds; appropriately enough, stories do.
You already have the story with the data you have. You don’t need exhaustive and impossible analysis or anything else; these charts tell the story well enough. The more people who point out the gender bias in the awards, the more current and future judges, editors, journalists, critics, and readers become aware of that bias, and you begin to have an effect.
Admittedly, this could fall into the pattern we see too often in which a single data point becomes a flashy headline and on further examination there is little substance to the story. In this case, though, it seems simple enough: “The more prestigious the award, the more likely the subject of the narrative will be male.”
You don’t need to explain the entire chain of historic and institutional forces that led to these outcomes. Let people who want to defend the status quo explain away. Hold people accountable for outcomes, which are highly visible, and they’ll figure out the process changes.
The question then becomes one of where you actually take this campaign. I don’t know the publishing world and can’t tell you the points of leverage. But if it turns into an annual media cycle in which the award results are announced and reporters follow the results with a statement about how, once again, the judges have emphasized books with male characters, you’re on the road to a win. Everyone who commented here retweeting a link to this post with each award announcement and tagging those who write the award stories would get the ball rolling.
As with privilege, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Data can help identify the problem but isn’t enough to solve it. Just for fun you can submit judging panels to http://allmalepanels.tumblr.com when appropriate, as it often would be.
Less science, more PR, for future action if someone wants to take this on. (I’m not calling on Nicola to lead the charge.)
(Now I either go back to my book or go read Nicola’s what-to-do-about-it post. Tough choice.)
Barb, I agree with you—mostly. In my experience of Advocacy World I’ve found that the media like a point of contact, a recognised ‘expert’. (VIDA is a brilliant example of this.) That’s what I want to achieve (and, no, I don’t particularly want to lead the charge but no one else is stepping forward, sigh).
I have a smaller sample–National Book Award fiction finalists, 2009-2015–that I happen to know something about because I’ve written review essays on the finalists during those years for the Barnes and Noble Review. During that period, 19 women and 16 men made the short list of five. Women won 3 times, men 4. Of the books by men who won, 1 was a war fiction, 1 was an adventure fiction, and 2 were about women and men. Of the books by women who won, 2 were primarily about women, 1 was about women and men. In this sample I don’t see much inequality. I doubt any of the writers chose their subjects because they increased their chances for a National Book Award. Both men and women seemed to be writing about what they knew best, and let the chances fall where they may. Most of the finalists books were about women AND men. I’m not sure that the perspective a writer chooses to take on women and men is as important as you suggest. There’s a whiff of “ought” about your position that might be useful in monitoring the composition of juries but not in monitoring the composition of creative works.
Tom, every reader can infer what they like from my posts because that’s what readers do. But this post is about data. And the data indicate that, over the last 15 years, the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the literary prize, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women. I’m not particularly interested in whether a writer “ought” (or ought not) to choose a particular subject. I am interested in which subjects are rewarded, and why.
But if you’re curious about how and why writers choose their subjects, you might find a recent essay by Clare Vaye Watkins interesting.
As for juries, I have preliminary data to indicate that the gender of the juries does not influence the gender of the winning protagonist. (Caveat: the gender of the jury chair was not included.) This is a cultural issue, much less simple than boys-choose-boys and girls-choose-girls.
Something that bothered me about your “data”: that you admitted you had not read most of the books. My sample of 7 years for one award is small, but I have read all 35 of the books I referred to, and for this award during these years I found your thesis was not confirmed. A possible oddity: in two of the years that women won, I thought two other books by women were stronger nominees. These two–one mostly about men, the other mostly about women–would also furnish an anecdotal reconfirmation.
Ooops, that last word should have been “deconfirmation.”
No data (with or without the damning “”) is without bias–so much depends on what we count, and how (and how many; as you point out, your sample is small), and what definitions we use. I’ve tried to be upfront about mine.
Some anecdata: in the Literary Prize Data group, some counters–who have read the book–will consider a book to be about women while others–who have also read the book–consider it to be about men. We had to hammer out a working definition and have long discussions.
The current working definition goes something like this:
“A protagonist is the character in a novel or short story with whom readers are meant to identify. Generally speaking, a novel with one, first-person narrator has a single protagonist: the narrator (e.g. Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave–Merlin). However, in some novels with multi-POV characters, especially those in third person, a POV character is not necessarily a protagonist (e.g. my own Hild–Hild–and Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven–Alexander and, maybe, Hephaestion). Many novels have one protagonist, two at most, while having many POV characters. A notable exception to this is epic fiction, whether fantasy, science fiction, or historical (e.g. A Game of Thrones–Ned Stark, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark). Obviously, there are exceptions to every rule (and to every exception). These cases are to be resolved via discussion on this list.”
The list/working group has about 60 members.
What’s your definition of a protagonist?
I suppose the character or characters to which the book is most attentive. But already there is a problem in, for example, Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind. The male “boza” seller gets primary 3rd person attention, but there are multiple 1st person points of view. Pamuk calls it his “first feminist novel,” perhaps because three sisters who, along with others, have voices are a lot sharper and more substantive than his naif protagonist. Counting protagonists is a complicated business. Right away, I’d quarrel with your first two sentences. “Identification” seems to this literary critic a retrograde response to a literary work. The sentence about a 1st person narrator as the only protagonist is simply wacky. I find it odd that the examples are drawn from, apparently, popular fiction rather than the kind of fiction that actually competes for the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Booker.
So how is “to which the book is most attentive” different from “with whom the readers are meant to identify”?
Hi, Excellent article, one question: why didn’t you use data from the Nobel Prize for Literature?
“Identify” is a very subjective notion. It’s probably clear to 16-year-old readers, both male and female, that they are meant to identify with Holden in The Catcher in the Rye. But what about Lolita? Would readers be likely to identify with Humbert or Lolita? I think not. Popular and genre literature probably depends a lot on identification with heroes versus villains. Literary fiction less so.
The problem of counting protagonists is related. Consider Adelle Waldman’s The Love Song of Nathaniel P (rev. here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/07/25/how-to-get-laid-in-brooklyn-a-la-adelle-waldman-s-nifty-novel-of-manners.html) [The headline is not mine.]
The POV character and protagonist is a man, but the female novelist deconstructs and critiques him. Your counter would say “Another woman writing about a man.” Yes, but only to satirize his behavior. I doubt that Waldman intends any readers, except maybe for a few obtuse males, to “identify with” Nate.
If you could see all writers and judges in the shower, it would be fairly easy to count them, but the method you seem to be using for counting protagonists and POV characters seems crude to me as I reflect on the 35 finalists I read for the NBA (plus another 10 on the expanded long list the last couple of years).
I feel a little like the tar baby, but your data got me interested in American awards of the same period as the NBA. (I’m not so familiar with the books that won the Booker between 2009 and 2015, but I have read almost all of the winners of the Pulitzer and NBCC prizes.)
No Pulitzer was awarded in 2012 but three finalists were announced. So in six years, 3 women won, 3 men won. Of the finalists, 10 were women, 12 were men. One female winner wrote about a male; one male winner wrote about a female.
The NBCC is on a slightly different schedule, so there are results only for 09-14. 5 of the 6 winners were women. 15 of the 30 finalists were women. One of the 5 women, Mantel, wrote primarily about men. Other women wrote about women and men. The one male winner (Fountain) wrote about war and football (and a cheerleader).
The composite figures are 11 female winners, 8 male winners, 44 female finalists, 43 male finalists. Is there a conclusion to be drawn from these numbers? It appears that the situation of woman writers has improved in the last seven years of your 2000-2015 sample—at least in the U.S. I found little evidence during these last seven years to support your thesis that women were winning prizes because they wrote about men.
A personal “by the way.” I got interested in prize decisions when I was an NBA fiction judge in 2005. That year there were 3 female and 2 male judges, 3 male finalists and 2 female finalists, and the award went to William Vollmann.
The Waldeman is still (in my opinion–I don’t disagree that this is subjective) about Nate. Yes, it’s critical of him, yes, it deconstructs him, but it’s still about him–it’s his behaviour that is satirised. He lies at the heart of the book. Regarding Lolita, the perspective is Humbert’s. We feel for Lolita, of course (some identify with her), and we see that Humbert is a monster–but it’s Humbert’s words, Humbert’s mind we swim in. This focus, this privileging of men and male experience/belief/perspective, is what I want to call attention to. Counting protagonists and POV characters is the best way I’ve found so far to do this.
Looking at the last six winners of the Pulitzer I see three (Goldfinch, Orphans Master’s Son, and Tinkers) as being, at heart, about men. Yes, we occasionally get a peek into the inner workings of a woman but essentially the consciousness, the flavour and perspective, is male. And the other three are equally divided. (No, I haven’t read all Olive Kitteridge. Just enough to move through a couple of POVs and see that although Olive is supposedly the unifying factor, her perspective is not the foundation of the book.) So perhaps we’ll have to agree to differ on how we would count those.
We may also have to agree to differ on the methods of literary versus genre fiction. For one thing, I could argue that literary fiction is a genre–but won’t here, because this comment thread is already drifting.(But if you’re interested in looking at one genre, f/sf, you might find this post interesting. My summary of it is here.)
Thanks for the conversation.
Thank you. I didn’t count the Nobel because that’s awarded for a body of work rather than specific books. In other words, it would have been way, way too time-consuming to count. But if someone else is willing to do the work I’d be delighted to talk about it.
Facebook release a training course on bias a few months back. In the course, they ran a simulation of a fictitious company that was 50% male/female at all levels. They introduced a 1% bias, women could score 0-100% and men could score 1-101% on performance reviews. After 20 iterations, the hierarchy changed to be top-heavy with men (I believe it was about 85% men at the highest level) and heavily female at the bottom, about 75% if I remember correctly. The data presented here looks eerily similar to that simulation
Wow amazing article and meticulously researched. I am checking my privilege at the door as a woman in literature. Hopeful that times will change soon. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront.
@Maureen: You are most welcome.
Thank you for this. Does Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See as the 2015 Pulitzer fiction winner not count as a novel written by a man about both men and women? The first chart says there have been zero of those.
@Liza: You’re right–it is both POVs written by a man. I went back and looked at my data: I’d only counted to 2014, that is, 15 years of prizes. The graph reflects that but the headline is wrong. I’ll correct it. Many thanks.
This is a great post and will be eye-opening to lost of folks. Have you heard of Kamila Shamsie’s challenge to publishers to make 2018 the Year of Publishing Women?
To the best of my knowledge, the only company in the US to accept is the one run by my wife and I:
If you would be willing, I would love to reprint this or an expanded version of it that connects it to Shamsie’s challenge on our blog because you’ve perfectly encapsulated why we need to push from the publishing end so that the folks who give the big prizes (and, for that matter, the newspapers and other outlets that offer the most prestigious reviews) are pressured to promote more books by women. As I tell the male authors signed with our company, we won’t be publishing any of my books or any of their in 2018; men have had the last few thousand years and we can go right back to being published in 2019, but let’s take a year to give all the big prizes and reviews to women to kick-start some careers and get more women the attention they deserve.
@Benjamin: Yes, I’m familiar with Shamsie’s piece. I’ve read may arguments for and against her challenge. I think publishing only women is a worthy step—and I commend you for taking it. As I’ve said before, many times on many platforms, the heart of the gender problem in publishing is not that of the author but that of the protagonist around whom the story revolves. Will a story about a woman or women be submitted to a jury? Will it be nominated? Supported and fought for? Will a story about a woman be deemed worthy of the prize? Will it be sought out for screen adaptation? Will it be taught in schools? In my opinion, women who are published learn early that the best way to get attention is to write about men. Men and male concerns are viewed as ‘universal.’ Women and women’s concerns are often regarded as ‘narrow’ or ‘limited.’ That is what has to change. And it needs tackling from every angle: the books agents agree to represent, those they send to publishers, those the publishers accept, and so on up the line.
If you email me via the contact form, we can chat further.
Hi Nicola, I was reading about https://justreview.org and thought of you.
@Gavin: Many thanks for that. It ties in with a possible project I’ve been pondering.
Perhaps this article had its effect: this year, not only was the Hugo best novel by a woman about women, but women won every category that went to an individual (authors, editors, artists), and women dominated most of the categories that went to a group effort (graphic story, semi-prozine, fanzine, podcast), except for best movie and best TV episode. The protagonist of every fiction category (including movie) was a woman, except for best TV episode and best series (Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga). Moreover, most of the protagonists in the fiction categories were women, including in the two novels written by men.
It’s now true that women have won the majority of individual Hugo awards so far in the current decade, mostly with female protagonists.
Despite my affection for the Hugos (I voted in them this year), it seems to me that the Newberry medal is quite a bit more prestigious. I can’t imagine Neil Gaiman, for instance, generously stepping aside to let other people win that one.
@Paddy: In some ways, you’re right. There’s only one Newbery Medal a year and 14 Hugos.
I joined this conversation late but just want to say one little thing. I found Hild in a “mini free library” and I’m loving the beginning so far. Seeing early medieval life through the eyes of an imaginative little girl is so beautiful. I feel like I’m sitting there on the edge of nature as I’m reading it and I definitely think it deserves a BIG REWARD!
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