Are 'women-only' prizes patronising?

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Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

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In 2011 female writers were locked out of the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Of course, this was nothing new. Since 1987 there have been four all-male shortlists and during its 55-year history, only 10 individual women have won the award.

But in 2011 when women in the arts furrowed their brows at the all-male line-up, two things changed. The first was our vocabulary, as some excellent new words were coined to describe all-male line-ups: sausage fest, cock forest and literary bucks night. The second was the Stella Prize.

With $50,000 prize money going to a female scribbler in fiction or non-fiction, the Stella Prize recently announced Carrie Tiffany and her novel Mateship with Birds, as the first winner.

But the Stella Prize, like the Orange Prize in Britain, has had its share of detractors. Nicolle Flint, a PhD student at Flinders University, claims the establishment of the prize communicates "clear messages that women still cannot compete on an intellectual basis with men".

Alternatively, critics have looked at this year's all-female shortlist for the Miles Franklin Literary Award, or at Hilary Mantel scooping every literary award in the galaxy and questioned whether a women-only award is still necessary.

To answer some of these questions, I asked Aviva Tuffield, chairwoman of the Stella Prize, for her thoughts.

Alecia: Besides the all-male shortlist for the 2011 Miles Franklin Literary Award, what led to the establishment of the Stella Prize?

Aviva: Dreams of the Stella Prize emerged in early 2011 when a panel was arranged for International Women's Day in response to the release of VIDA's "The Count". VIDA, a US organisation dedicated to promoting women in literature, went through a number of prominent literary publications and counted the number of books reviewed by women, the number of female reviewers and of female contributors.

The results showed shocking levels of female under-representation and, sadly, little has changed. (See The Count for 2012).

Many of us had noticed a similar pattern in Australia. Consider the fiction component of the premiers' literary prizes: Queensland's has been won by a woman four out of 12 times; the NSW one 11 out of 31 times; the Victorian award eight out of 26 times. Similarly, The Age Book of the Year has been won by a woman only 14 out of 36 times.

The picture for reviewing is equally grim. In 2011, 70 per cent of books reviewed for The Weekend Australian were by men, for The Monthly 74 per cent and for The Australian Financial Review 79 per cent. The figures can be found here.

Alecia: What would you say to Nicolle Flint's assertion that the prize is patronising?

Aviva: Flint implicitly ascribes gender imbalance in prizes to the idea that men must be better writers than women, given that women publish just as many books as men – more in fiction. Whereas I would argue that the discrepancy is simply because women and men do not operate on a level playing field in the field of literature.

I am not arguing that there is some concerted campaign of discrimination against women writers – far from it. In any particular year, the "best book" in any category, as decided by a panel of judges (and these always comprise women and men) may certainly be a novel by a man. But when this happens repeatedly, then it suggests that there are unconscious and systematic prejudices at work.

Alecia: What are some of these prejudices? Is it because our criteria of literary significance is shaped by gender norms?

Aviva: I think there are two things at work here: one is gender, and one is genre/literary merit. Women and men don't write differently per se but they may be judged differently – hence some women using male pseudonyms and/or their initials (like J. K. Rowling) to hide their gender. Also, men and boys are simply less likely to read books written by women. A recent GQ article found that only 11 per cent of the fiction men read is by women.

Also, if women write about domestic life or families it's often categorised as "women's fiction". But if men do, such as Jonathan Franzen or Christos Tsiolkas, it's called great literature, a masterpiece of contemporary mores and relationships".

Genre is the other thing at play. While women and men might not write differently, they may write more often about different things. For example, men write more military history and women probably write more about families.

The problem is that our ideas about literary value and what makes a great work are gendered masculine and may mean that we value books about war more highly than a novel about contemporary family life.

Of course the book about family life may be packed full of political ideas but they're explored through a different lens. The words of Virginia Woolf in 1929 are still relevant today: "It is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex . . . And these values are transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.

Alecia: What kinds of "real world" effects does this have upon female writers?

Aviva: Women's books are less likely than men's to win literary prizes and they're less likely to be reviewed in the literary pages and women are less likely to be used as reviewers.

And if women's books aren't being reviewed and aren't winning prizes, then people don't get to hear about them. This is detrimental to women writers' earnings.

An Australia Council survey recently found that writers' incomes have fallen significantly over the past decade, down from an average of $23,000 to just $11,000 by 2011. So prizes can be a very important source of income for them. In fact, Kate Grenville said that winning the Orange Prize was career changing for her.

Alecia: What does the Stella Prize hope to achieve?

Aviva: There is much evidence (particularly seen in political representation) that positive discrimination has beneficial, trickle-down effects to future generations.

So we hope that by celebrating Australian women writers, and devising a prize that recognises their work and makes sure that it doesn't get overlooked, this will have positive effects for new and emerging female writers here and now, and for the literary stars of the future.

 

29 comments

  • "Since 1987 there have been four all-male shortlists and during its 55-year history, only 10 individual women have won the award."

    Or, to put it another way, presuming this is an annual award, the last 26 times the award has been handed out, there were 4 all-male shortlists and 22 shortlists that at included at least one female writer, despite women being significantly underrepresented in the industry as a whole. Both interpretations are correct, and both serve to imply a particular perspective and obscure real discussion.

    The facts should speak for themselves regarding women's under-representation in the literary arena, there's no need to use deceptive phrasing around the facts in order to push a particular perspective.

    Commenter
    DM
    Date and time
    May 20, 2013, 10:21AM
    • I got lost in the poor presentation of numbers to substantiate the argument.

      Commenter
      Bejo
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 6:35PM
  • It is not only about domesticity or war. Women who write about war are also overlooked not only for prizes but also in getting published. These are structural issues. The structure is patriarchy. I have tried to get commentary published in this newspaper by women who are far better informed than many who make it to these pages. They too are refused. Time and again. Aviva is right about many things, but one prize, good as it is, won't change the world, nor will it change the literary scene. Until Daily Life takes over the Age and publishes articles that really push boundaries very little will change.

    Commenter
    Susan Hawthorne
    Date and time
    May 20, 2013, 10:59AM
    • "Until Daily Life takes over the Age and publishes articles that really push boundaries very little will change."

      I think this would make a great idea for a novel, Susan. A world in which articles advancing our agenda are published. A world in which petty objections are given no airtime. A world in which women can develop their own language and share their experiences in a safe space, free from harassment. We have been waiting for this vision to be realised for decades, in my case since the 1980s. In fact, since 1984...

      Commenter
      Nogbad
      Location
      A modest proposal
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 1:56PM
    • "A world in which petty objections are given no airtime."

      Sounds a lot like censorship to me.

      Commenter
      zero
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 3:53PM
    • I'd rather not have Daily Life take over a news outlet thank you very much.

      Of course gender specific prizes are patronising. It's like a runner up prize for those who couldn't make the grade and do nothing to advance the cause at all. The intention might be to showcase female writers, but they still won't be considered at the top end and if anything are probably going to be boxed into being a female only writer.

      Commenter
      Ailie
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 3:57PM
  • In 2011, I flip a coin 4 times. 4 times in a row I get tails. I claim that is unfair and ask that a special coin with heads on both sides be made, and that tails had locked out the competition.

    In 2013, I flip a different coin 4 times. 4 times in a row, I get heads. Now I claim that people are so used to getting tails all the time, that the heads breakthrough will have beneficial, trickle-down effects for coin-flippers everywhere.

    When it comes down to it, it's still just a coin.

    Commenter
    Titus
    Date and time
    May 20, 2013, 11:20AM
    • I know this is a very long bow to draw. But perhaps the female writers were'nt well goog enough maybe their writing was inferior and not up to the standard required and as result was dumped.
      Just a thought

      Commenter
      Jeromey
      Date and time
      May 20, 2013, 11:32AM
      • There is just way too much irony within that comment.

        Commenter
        Bloke
        Date and time
        May 20, 2013, 12:21PM
      • Oh enough. I am so tired of hearing about women complaining that they havent been chosen. Women who are chosen are the best and get on and do the do. The rest have to face up to the fact that perhaps they are just not good enough.
        If I was chosen for a role or a prize I would hope that it would be because my work was the best - not because of a quota.

        Commenter
        tired feminist
        Location
        sydney
        Date and time
        May 20, 2013, 1:32PM

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