If women want to win literary prizes, then they should write great books…
I intensely dislike prizes that are specifically for women, unless there is an equivalent prize especially for men. It’s so pathetic… do we really feel we need to be patronised in this way in 2016? And, worse, patronised mainly by our fellow women!
Take tennis, for example. It is a biological fact that most men are bigger and stronger than most women and so it would be entirely unfair to expect women to compete against men at the top levels. Though I’m betting Serena could give most of them a good run for their money. (And talking of money, should women who only play three sets – usually two, in fact, 6-0, 6-1, or equally exciting – really get paid the same as men who play five set thrillers? But that’s a heated debate for another day…)
Back to books – yes, as I was saying, men’s bodies are usually bigger and stronger than women’s, so in sports competitions where physical strength is a factor, separation by gender is often justified. So, if women require special prizes for literature, is the logical inference, therefore, that men have more powerful brains too??? I think not, ladies!!! (Men, be very careful what you say – remember the Valkyries!)
In Britain, the Prime Minister, Home Secretary, First Minister of Scotland and leader of Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists) are all women. A woman is in charge of the IMF. Hillary Clinton has been nominated for the US Presidency. The glass ceiling is lying in shards on the ground (in the West). Yes, there’s still work to do at the other end of society in ensuring equal pay for work of equal worth, but girls are educated to the same level as boys, more women than men go to university, no-one bats an eyelid any longer at the idea of a female scientist or engineer, and Western societies on the whole work hard to ensure that pregnancy is no longer a career-ending disaster. You know what, my feminist sisters? We won! The remaining neanderthals will gradually die out as they find it harder and harder to find women willing to procreate with them!
So why exactly do women writers still think they need special treatment? Haven’t we been demanding a level playing field all along? If I left my entire estate (£6.83 at the last count) to endow an annual literary prize open to men only, wouldn’t you want to bean me with a placard, sisters? (Which, I have to point out, would be pretty tasteless of you, since obviously I’d be dead at the time…)
One argument put forward regularly for the continuance of women’s only prizes, like the Bailey’s, is that statistically books by men are more likely to be reviewed in the news media and literary press. I contend, however, that books by women are statistically far, far more likely to be reviewed, promoted and boosted by reviewers in the blogosphere, with some blogs specifically restricting themselves to women writers. If we want to even up one, let’s even up the other. What’s sauce for the goose, after all…! Or we could just assume that it all balances out in the end.
Let’s look at a few facts. Since 1975, a year I chose because that’s when the Sex Discrimination Act became law in the UK, women make up 37% of Booker prize winners. Shorten that to the last ten years and the split is 50/50. This year’s judging panel comprises 3 men and 2 women, with one of the women chairing. Of the thirteen books on the 2016 longlist, six are by women. The longlist for the William McIlvanney prize for 2016 has 4 women out of the 10 contenders. Six out of the last ten winners of the Costa Book of the Year were women. The Amazon UK fiction bestseller list as at date of writing (7th August 2016) includes seven women amongst the top ten. JM Coetzee’s last book has 3024 ratings on Goodreads; Hilary Mantel’s last book has 5545. This is not because one is considered ‘better’ than the other since they are both rated overall at roughly 3.5 stars.
My opinion therefore is that prizes such as Bailey’s are outdated remnants of a fight that is over. Let’s stop whinging about how women writers are treated unfairly and instead celebrate the fact that women are doing spectacularly well across the literary board – in literary fiction, crime fiction, memoirs, etc., etc. Let’s start saying that since we are equal we don’t need special treatment. The winner of any literary prize should simply be the person who writes the best book.
If women want to win more prizes
then all they need to do is write more great books.
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Over to you! Agree or disagree, it won’t be a heated debate without you! 😉
(The image at the top is of Mrs Merton, alter-ego of the late, great comedian Caroline Aherne, who made the phrase “Let’s have a heated debate” her own.)