The Baileys Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) for Fiction was handed out Wednesday, with the award going to A.M. Homes for her novel May We Be Forgiven. It is a coup for Homes, a Washington-born writer who takes home the $46,000 award for the first time. All of the books shortlisted this year were worthy of the prize with a highly competitive field including the likes of Hilary Mantel and Zadie Smith. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies even won the Man Booker Prize last year. While Homes’ win is well deserved, it is likely to spark the inevitable debate over the validity of women’s-only prizes.
There are those who would argue women’s-only prizes only increase the notion that women cannot compete with men.
“The Orange prize is a sexist prize … [it] assumes there is a feminine subject matter — which I don't believe in. It's honourable to believe that — there are fine critics and writers who do — but I don't,” A.S. Byatt tells the Guardian.
Byatt, like others, believe that these prizes send the wrong message; that women aren’t on the same creative level as men. This is not only an offensive notion, we have seen in recent years it’s not true. Mantel and the Man Booker, Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer win in 2011, women are winning on the same playing field as men, so aren’t women’s-only prizes irrelevant?
The evidence suggests no. While it’s encouraging that women are making a mark on the literary world (finally), viewing these events as a representation of what the publishing industry is like for female fiction writers is misleading. The number of overall female prize winners compared to their male counterparts is shameful at best and the number of female writers being reviewed and published is no better. A VIDA study looking at the book review sections of magazines and literary journals points to a gender bias in reviews both written by women and written about their works. Male authors account for over 60% of all reviews in these publications. It is a slight improvement over 2011, but many of the main offenders — the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Harpers — have stayed mostly stagnant. While this may not seem all that important, reviews are what spark interest in a work, they create awareness of its existence. Being reviewed, especially by the right publications, is seen by many authors as a major coup. This gender inequality creates a bigger market for male authors while leaving women out in the cold. Thus the vicious cycle begins wherein women are not reviewed because they are not as well-known because they are not reviewed.
What’s worse is what women are publishing is more harshly judged and categorized than their male counterparts. When women write about domestic issues and relationships they are likely to be categorized as chick lit. If a woman can’t write like Zadie Smith, she is deemed unworthy of critical praise. However, when male authors like Jonathan Franzen write about their domestic experience they are lauded as literary geniuses. And even when women turn their backs on the literary fiction scene, genre fiction is no more welcoming. Female speculative fiction writers find it almost as difficult as female literary writers to not only get reviewed, but also published.
Because even getting published is a major battle for most female authors, more so than their male counterparts. While no official statistics exist (at least that I could find), the New Republic took an informal survey of the catalogues of major and independent publishing houses. The results were not good, for women anyways. The most egalitarian publisher was Penguin with 45% of those books looked at being written by women. The second best? Random House with a whole 37%. With numbers like these it’s no wonder women feel like they have to take it upon themselves to support their literary works.
So maybe the women’s-only prizes aren’t so patronizing after all. I will admit they are inherently sexist; anything that excludes someone based on their sex is. Many will ask, where are the men’s-only awards? I would argue that up until recently, almost all of the awards have been almost solely for men. Events celebrating women are thus a necessary evil, an overcorrection to rectify ingrained discrimination. Hopefully there will be a time when the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction is looked upon as a thing of the past, but we aren’t there yet. There is still a prejudice against female authors — whether deliberately or not — and until that is rectified, the presence of gendered prizes will continue to grow.