Sexism’s Place in Prize Culture

The Man Booker Prize has awarded 31 men and 16 women. The Pulitzer prize – 67 men and 30 women. The Miles Franklin? 28 men and only 14 women. All these stats, courtesy of Lit Hub, point to a gender gap in prize culture. Prizes lean towards men’s writing over women’s. VIDA, an organization that supports transparency when it comes to issues of gender equality in the book business, extends their figures beyond mere the prize winners. In top publications, from the London Review to the Paris Review, women’s work only covers roughly a quarter of published reviews. The board of reviewers mirrors similar stats.

Image courtesy of May Born

It’s problematic that these publications produce so little content from women, and equally troubling that we make marked distinctions between ‘women’s work’ and ‘men’s work’. It’s what Lit hub author, Natalie Kon-Yu, takes issue with.

As Kon-Yu discusses, Evie Wyld’s 2013 book, All the Birds, Singing, won the Miles Franklin award, one of Australia’s most prestigious prizes. The win was cause for celebration: here was a woman nabbing such an honourable award for a novel that focused on a female character. The book centers on Jake, a woman that strays far from the traditional notions of femininity, beginning with her name. But under the novel’s thin female contours – female author, check; female protagonist, check – it settles into traditionally male tropes, from the masculine characterization of the protagonist to the plot itself.

The blatantly obvious offense is that the win was championed because Wyld is a woman, not because she deserved it. Below that surface frustration, and what Kon-Yo finds troubling, is that the work is valued for doing something most male authors traditionally do: write about masculine figures living in masculine worlds. What’s worse, it’s under the guise of being ‘women’s work’.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld


Kon-Yo urges female authors to produce more ‘women’s work’, and pushes for this node of literature to uphold more non-masculine characters living in non-masculine worlds. But her argument seems to crawl back into the sexist territory it came from: the urge to draw a line between men’s work and women’s work. Why should any author – male or female – be subject to a stricture of the sort? The suggestion that female authors should write about women’s issues alone, courtesy of a ‘more’ female character than Jake, seems to pigeonhole female authors to a rather constricting list of archetypes.

Scrolling through reviews, I realized that much of the praise for the book was geared towards it’s achievment of striking male terrain. Like Kun-Yo suggests, and in spite of Wyld’s gender-bending charcater and distortion of feminiine tropes, it appears Wyld won in great part to writing like a man. That our culture sees a woman writing as a man as achievement is testimony to a sexist view that holds male prize winners as the default, and women prize winners as the exception to the rule.

It’s a hard notion to weed out of literary culture, largely because it’s been with us for so long: the canon is predominantly male (and white), even the structure of a story can be seen as male. Rising action, climax, falling action: it follows a masculine mode of sexuality rather than the feminine, dotted with multi-climactic moments between a clear beginning and end. Of course, it’s all too easy to embed gender discrimination where it’s not, and I’m not suggesting some cunning cavemen schemed up the single-climax story line. But, there are some issues to grapple with, from the base of literature itself to the system we create to value it. After all, value is what prizes are all about, at least according to Jennifer Szalai of the New York Times:

“The true currency of prizes is recognition — in scarce supply as books struggle to cut through the glut of our crowded culture.”

The nature of prizes is naturally exclusive, but even so, there’s room for adjusting our value system, expanding the ways we judge, and categorizing literature more mindfully. Defining the category as a category of itself can be limiting. Any kind of identity bracket, whether gender based or race based, inadvertently sets a spectrum of what to expect, it’s the same issue that’s plagued Asian-American writers for decades. Authors bound within the parameters of any category are threatened by limits.

However, the issues go beyond gender, race, and geography: prize culture in it’s entirety is flawed by subjective values and incoherencies. How Faulkner won the Nobel Prize as an international writer and the Pulitzer as an American – or how Joyce never won an award – is a point for consideration in the oddities of the prize world. 

At least in the realm of gender equality, women are getting more literary credit while boards of judges are trying their best not to gender the topics contestants put forth. One great example of this is the Stella Prize in Australia, which caters specifically to female authors.

Stella Prize Shortlist for 2016 (image courtesy of Fiction in the Kitchen)

The prize strips the contest of the ‘man vs. women’ nausea you see in other awards, and because of it’s spectrum of categories and openness to novelty, ‘women’s issues’ are not the only issue. Pop culture, politics, war, the economy – the world’s tangled wad of issues is valued equally, meaning the real value is placed on quality of writing.

The underrated beauty of the prize is the monetary supplement. That’s right, cash flow. More than anything, money affords a writer time to produce, and time to produce free of frantic deadlines, chopping, and re-writing just to please a publisher. With money and time, female authors can create polished reads pure with the author’s voice.

The Stella Prize isn’t the only one addressing the issues that come of prize culture, but the organizaiton’s efforts seem to highlight a more thoughtful approach to valuing literature. It’s unlikely we’ll ever live in a completely gender-blind world, but reimagining gender associations and it’s presence in literature more generally, is a start in the right direction. 

Featured image courtesy of Kochipost.