A headline in today’s Guardian gushes: ‘Rathbone Folio Prize: Zadie Smith makes female-dominated shortlist.’ Now I like Zadie, and although I haven’t read her first story collection, Grand Union, I doubt that it’s unworthy. Still, I must admit (dare I?) that on reading “female-dominated shortlist” I did think, ‘Another one?’ And in case you wonder, as I did myself for a moment, if it were merely my impression that women writers have been dominating the prize shortlists lately, I did some research. These are the facts about a few major recent prizes:
Rathbone Folio Prize, 2020: 6/8 shortlisted writers are women
Booker Prize, 2019: 5/6 finalists were women
National Book Award Finalists, 2019: 4/5 finalists were women
National Book Critics Circle First Book Award, 2019: 6/7 finalists were women
Orange Prize for Fiction, 2019: 6/6 finalists were women.
To sum up, out of 32 finalists in those five prizes, just 5 were men; that’s 15.63%. You could argue, justly I admit, that if you took the statistics for literary prizes from thirty years ago, the preponderance of male finalists (and winners) over female ones would likely have been as great. And I completely accept that with so many women writing these days, and so many good ones, we should be seeing far more women among the prize lists than we used to. But this kind of dominance? Can it be true that so few of the best books are being written by men? That’s a logical possibility, and perhaps there’s something in it. There’s evidence that most readers of fiction are women, so it’s natural that the market will reflect the tastes of women, or perhaps their perceived tastes. (Do they really prefer books by and about women? That seems to be the assumption of publishers.)
It’s also logically possible that women are simply more talented than men. The historical evidence would seem to gainsay that hypothesis, but one might object that women were so under-represented in education until relatively recently, that the picture we have from the past is skewed. Doubtless, many more talented women authors would have written and published if they had had the same opportunities as men. I accept that there ought to have been far more prominent women writers in the past, and applaud the efforts of publishers like Virago who have sought to rescue the reputations of little-known women novelists—some of them brilliant, who deserve to be well-known. On the other hand, it’s my impression, admittedly not bolstered by scientific evidence, that there are just as many gifted male writers as female ones currently; and I base that statement both on my reading of published work and of my knowledge of the work of many other writers (including my thirteen years teaching creative writing at an American university). It seems to me that at least as many of the brilliant new talents are male. Notice I don’t say more!
A third explanation is that the literary establishment is seeking to redress the historic dominance of male writers, by deliberately promoting the work of women writers, as if it were in need of ‘affirmative action.’ Surely it isn’t any longer? It has to be clear to anyone that no prejudice against women writers exists in the Anglo-Saxon world. One of the most bizarre features of this cultural moment is that within the liberal consensus, which is shared by almost everyone in the arts, the media, and academia, we praise diversity, and condemn prejudice and bigotry. And justly so. I agree that no writer should be excluded because of her sex, sexuality, ethnicity, religion or anything else. But shouldn’t that apply to men too? Or has our enlightened society agreed that men are exempt—that they are by nature privileged, or even toxic, and thus deserve to be repressed? No one will admit to this prejudice, I suspect, or few will. (The Egyptian-American writer, Mona Eltahawy, did recently advocate ‘culling’ men in an imaginary scenario—which would be considered ‘hate speech’ were it a man suggesting the same of women.) Nevertheless, it does appear that an unspoken and unacknowledged prejudice is operating against men. Just consider all the contests which are open only to women and ‘non-binary’ persons. Or the Orange Prize itself, which is open only to women writes. Can you even conceive of a literary prize open only to men? If one were instituted, wouldn’t it be subject to legal action on the grounds of gender discrimination? I think we all know it would.
Finally, what’s to be done? Plenty of men are simply throwing up their hands in despair. But I suggest that they need to speak out, not give in to prejudice and bullying. And let’s hope that the women who by and large control the publishing industry, and particularly the literary agencies who are its gatekeepers, start judging work on its merit, not the profile of its author (whether that’s biological or sociological—we needn’t go into that here.)
Then we might have true diversity—of views, and aesthetic approaches. I would welcome that.