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?
- 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.