Be a girl with a mind, be treated like a dog on its hind legs

By Kat Lister

Last week, 158 writers were whittled down to six finalists and Donna Tartt was heralded as the bookies’ favourite to win the 2014 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction).

Bailey’s – a brand of liqueur whose recent advertising slogan encouraged drinkers to “be a girl with a mind, a woman with attitude and a lady with class” – now in association with a prize designed to eradicate such patronising stereotypes.

This latest twist only raises a popular question once more: can gender-segregated prizes for women truly tackle the issue of sexism within publishing?

In 1996 feathers were ruffled. In a column for The Independent philosopher Alain de Botton described the concept of a literary prize purely for women as “patronage of the worst kind”. “What is it,” he asked, “about being a woman that is particularly under threat, in need of attention, or indeed distinctive from being a man, when it comes to picking up a pen?”

In one respect, de Botton was right and still is: a women’s prize for literature is the worst kind of patronage. It assumes that there is an un-level playing field for men and women within publishing. It assumes, it accepts, and then it packs up its things and decamps to a smaller playing field down the road with a handful of Baileys goodie bags and a sign out front marked: Women Only. Two decades later, is this progress?

Last year Lady Antonia Fraser said, in response to an all-woman Costa shortlist – the first in the prize’s history – that: “one thing it proves is that we don’t need a women’s prize. The only reason for having a prize for one sex was that women weren’t getting fair treatment. That was the case when the Orange prize started.”

In so far as both of these quotes go, both Alain and Antonia got it both right and wrong in equal measure. We don’t need a women’s prize. We need a gender-balanced industry that gives equal exposure to both sexes and makes every literary prize a fair one.

Fast forward to 2014 and women still aren’t getting this fair treatment. On the Waterstones bookshelves, yes, but in the literary supplements of the weekend papers they are still struggling to be seen and understood. Lady Fraser is right that women writers aren’t under threat of never being published, but they do struggle to be visible and considered intellectually credible alongside their male counterparts. This, despite the fact that more than 67% of books sold in the UK were bought by women in 2012.

Don’t believe me? Believe the facts. VIDA Count in the USA (founded in August 2009 to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of their writing) tallies the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews each year. The statistics make for grim reading. In 2013 the London Review of Books reviewed 245 male authors and 72 female ones, with bylines of 144 male and 42 female writers; The New Yorker magazine’s overall gender count was 555 male to 253 female; the Times Literary Supplement reviewed 907 male authors and 313 female, with bylines by 282 male and 88 female writers; and lastly The New York Review of Books reviewed 307 male authors and 80 female, with 117 male bylines to a woeful 32 female.

A recent admittance from Eleanor Catton, author of Man Booker Prize winning The Luminaries, in a Guardian interview from 2013, puts these statistics into context: “I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel,” she says. “In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”

AS Byatt took Catton’s words and transformed them into stark poetry in 2010 when she likened a critic’s perception of a woman writing intellectual literature as “like a dog standing on its hind legs“. “The Orange prize is a sexist prize,” she continued. “You couldn’t found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in.”

Much like AS Byatt, as a writer myself, I don’t believe that books should be gendered like a French noun. I also don’t believe that women writers should only compete with each other to garner acclaim in a world where John le Carré and Angela Carter sit side by side on the bookshelf. Writing isn’t a 100 metre sprint between Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at the Olympics, so why should both be separated? A good book is a good book, regardless of gender. Reading is one of the few freedoms that should sidestep all that. Books are, were, and should always be an opportunity to escape the divisions, not define them. Surely we should be putting pressure on magazine editors to hire more female reviewers and review more female authors, not nurturing talent in a greenhouse.

Has Hilary Mantel’s recent success made us complacent? The twice Booker Prize-winning author is often placed like a plaster over the accusations of sexism in publishing; a simple antidote to Eleanor Catton’s complex observations. Mantel isn’t a one-trophy female-author, she’s amassed two Orange Prizes, two Man Bookers, two Costa Book Prizes and made it look effortless. Yet as far as the media is concerned, she’s a unicorn to be marvelled at.

More worryingly, back in 2013 a lecture by Mantel at the British Museum on the objectification of Royal women led Hilary herself to be objectified as a female writer, her looks cruelly dissected to demean her fierce intellect. In 2013, Orange Prize winning Zadie Smith hit out at the media’s “ridiculous” obsession with her looks, suggesting it implies a beautiful woman can’t be a literary great. Whether we like it or not, women writers are still being judged by their looks not just their words.

Moreover, at a time when female authors are still using initials and male pseudonyms to ‘liberate’ themselves, can we truly celebrate victory with an all-women prize? To quote Doris Lessing rather more eloquently: “With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates.”

If the temporary climate is unequal, we must change it, not permanently segregate: where is the freedom in that?

Kat Lister is a Contributing Editor of Feminist Times. She is a freelance writer living in London and can be found tweeting to an empty room @Madame_George. She has contributed to NME, The Telegraph, Grazia, Time Out, Clash magazine and Frankie magazine.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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