There are certain literary awards that have serious brand value. Even if you’re not a bookworm you recognise their names, and you might have even bought a book or two because you’d heard of its win and figured it must be good. That’s the real value of these prizes: it’s not so much about the monetary value of the prize itself, but the boost in visibility and longevity of a writer’s career. That’s why it stinks that women miss out so often (particularly when they have the audacity to write about women). Of course, there are plenty of prizes specifically for women (The Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK being one example), but for whatever reason (and I have a few ideas) they don’t seem to carry the same cachet. Why don’t women win literary awards? Looking at past winners like Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (she scored the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961), it’s really hard to fathom a reason. So, let’s take a look at some of the fantastic women who have beat the odds and won a major literary award…
The Pulitzer Prize is a U.S. award that celebrates excellence in literature, as well as journalism and musical composition, established in 1917. It is currently administered by Columbia University in New York, and winners are awarded $15,000 in cash. The first woman writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction actually came pretty early on: Edith Wharton got the gong for The Age of Innocence in 1921 (and I reviewed it here, by the way). Since then, though, women have won the Pulitzer just 28 times – that’s 29 out of 91 awards (taking out the years that the prize wasn’t awarded at all), a mere 32%. For an entire decade, in the 1950s, no women won at all – the jury recommended Elizabeth Spencer for The Voice At The Back Door in 1957, but the Pulitzer board declined to award it to her.
Still, among that third of the winners, there are some personal favourites of mine: Margaret Mitchell (for Gone With The Wind in 1937), and our girl Harper Lee (for To Kill A Mockingbird in 1961). Notable WOC winners include Alice Walker (for The Color Purple in 1983), and Toni Morrison (for Beloved in 1988).
Nobel Prize for Literature
The Nobel Prizes are basically a hot mess as far as gender equality is concerned. As of 2017, Nobel Prizes had been awarded to 844… and 48 women. Taking out the awards given to companies and organisations, that’s just 5% of Nobel Prizes going to the gender that makes up half the population. Tsk tsk!
Of those 48 winners, fourteen have received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Selma Lagerlöf went first, winning the prize in 1909 (six years after Marie Curie famously became the first female winner ever, getting the Nobel Prize for Physics). The committee cited their “appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterise her writings”. Next was Grazia Deledda, who won in 1926 “for her idealistically inspired writings which with plastic clarity picture the life on her native island and with depth and sympathy deal with human problems in general” (who writes those press releases?!). More recently, Alice Munro won in 2013 for mastering the contemporary short story, and Svetlana Alexievich won in 2015 for her “polyphonic writings”, which the committee called a “monument to suffering and courage in our time”. But, of course, all of those came before this year’s scandal…
Miles Franklin Award
It’s not just the international and American committees that overlook women for literary awards; we’ve got some problems at home, too. Domestically, women have historically been rather underrepresented in the Miles Franklin Award – which is kind of ironic, given that it is named for its creator, famed Australian writer Miles Franklin (who wrote My Brilliant Career, which I reviewed here). This disparity has led to the creation of the Stella Prize, which addresses the gender imbalance by specifically recognising the literary achievements of Australian women. It seems to be working, at least in some measure, because women are getting a bit more of a look-in with the Miles Franklin since the Stella Prize was introduced – Josephine Wilson won for Extinctions in 2017, Sofie Laguna for The Eye of the Sheep in 2015, and this year Michelle de Kretser for The Life To Come. Let’s hope that trend continues!
The Booker Prize is awarded to the best English-language novel published in the U.K. each year. Traditionally, it was awarded only to authors from Commonwealth countries (plus Ireland and Zimbabwe), but a recent (controversial!) change saw it opened up to entrants from any country. Since 1969, 31 men and 16 women have won the prize – and, believe it or not, this is one of the better examples of gender equality in international literary awards. It’s not exactly a high bar, eh?
The first female winner of the Booker was Bernice Rueben in 1970; she won for The Elected Member, a book about an amphetamine addict who sees silverfish everywhere (I’m not kidding). Arundhati Roy also won in 1997 for The God of Small Things, and literary darling Margaret Atwood won in 2000 for The Blind Assassin. And this year, Anna Burns got the gong for Milkman (which is already on my next to-be-read list!). But I’m still pretty mad that Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (my review here) lost out to Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North in 2014, though…
National Book Award
This is probably the only award that has comparable brand-recognition as the Pulitzer in the U.S., though it’s perhaps not as recognisable in the rest of the world. The National Book Award(s) are awarded annually to American authors, across multiple categories. The selection panels can arrive at a winner using any criteria they deem fit, as long as it falls within the guidelines set forth by the National Book Foundation. The NBAs were established in 1936, suspended briefly during the Second World War, and continued from 1950. In the awards’ history, female winners have included Joyce Carol Oates in 1970 (for Them), Ursula K LeGuin in 1973 (for The Farthest Shore), Alice Walker in 1983 (for The Color Purple), E. Annie Proulx in 1993 (for The Shipping News), and Patti Smith in 2010 (for Just Kids). This is an impressive list, but once again, women represent only 25% of the National Book Awards winners overall.
Important Note: the stats on how many of these women are women of colour aren’t readily available (funny that, eh?), but I’m going to hazard a guess that it is far too few… and the same definitely goes for trans and queer women.
Doesn’t it seem ridiculous that women are the primary consumers (and writers!) of fiction, and yet they win proportionately very few literary awards? It’s certainly not because they’re not talented, or keep writing only fluffy “chick-lit” (though that term makes me want to vomit). Looking over this list, it’s plain to see that they’ve got the writing chops for literary fiction. The only logical conclusion is that female writers just aren’t taken as seriously as their male counterparts, and the ripple effects of this is huge: women writers receive less money, less exposure, and fewer opportunities to develop and distribute their art (which means that even fewer women are enticed into the creative industries to begin with – you’ve got to see it to be it, after all!).
How do we fix this? Well, we need to exert our consumer pressure on the selection panels for starters (the director of the National Book Awards has given us a head start on that). We need to make a point of spending our precious consumer dollars on those women who do win now and then. We need to vote for politicians that fund and support women in the arts, and we need to support corporates that chip in, too. Plus, we need to share articles like this one far and wide, of course 😉 to bring attention to the issue. Have you got any other ideas? Let me know in the comments below (or tell us over at KUWTP on Facebook!).