Guest post: The Baileys Prize - 'why we still need a women-only book prize'
The winner of this year's Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) will be announced tomorrow. In this guest post, Jane Bradley of For Books' Sake argues that it's still essential to have a women-only literary award.
For Books' Sake
Tue 03-Jun-14 14:03:16
Tomorrow, the winner of the Baileys Prize will be revealed, accompanied I'm sure by the usual bickering about quotas, sexism and positive discrimination.
After all, the last two Booker Prizes have been won by women. In 2013, women outnumbered men on longlists including the Booker, Guardian First Book Award, and Granta's Best Young British Novelists list. The most recent Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Alice Munro. As readers, women buy and read more than their male counterparts. As writers, they write and sell more than the men.
But Prizes serve a special purpose, as Kate Mosse, one of the founders of the Prize, explains - “Prizes define an author’s literary legacy, and safeguard their future visibility. Prizes being awarded now will define what is taught on university syllabuses in decades to come”. And they have a long history of gender bias.
The Baileys Prize was founded in response to the 1991 Booker shortlist, which contained no women whatsoever, overlooking the numerous books by iconic women writers published that year. Since its inception in 1969, women writers account for only a third of Booker winners, and other awards show a similar imbalance; Alice Munro may have won the latest Nobel Prize for Literature, but she's only the thirteenth woman to do so in the prize's history, which spans over a century.
‘The media chatter around female authors all too often comes down to appearance over achievement. Like when The Times described Hilary Mantel as looking "rather like a gerbil, soft and plump and fluffy," or wrote about Eleanor Catton in terms of her blonde hair and "pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness."’
Whether it's prompted by prejudice or disinclination to shake-up the status quo, the mainstream media just doesn't give women writers the recognition they deserve. The latest VIDA Count showed that titles by women account for only one in four of the books reviewed in major newspapers and literary journals. The most recent World Book Night actively reduced the number of women writers in their line-up; a Guardian list of fifty key moments in literature was almost all-male, and the editor of the London Review of Books believes "women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces."
And when they are written about, the media chatter around female authors - as with all women in the public eye - all too often comes down to appearance over achievement. Like when The Times described Hilary Mantel as looking "rather like a gerbil, soft and plump and fluffy," or wrote about Eleanor Catton in terms of her blonde hair and "pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness."
Awards like the Baileys Prize go some way towards countering this – they remove any possibility of gender bias and shift the focus back to the books. Winners also receive media coverage unprecedented for most women writers, securing recognition, status, and a fantastic platform and audience for their future projects. On individual and collective levels, the Baileys Prize has been brilliant for forcing the public eye to focus on women authors – previous winners, such as We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun have become modern classics, and their authors household names.
And it goes way beyond the British media. At a recent event, Kate Mosse spoke about the increasing international importance of the award. Every year, she explained, she receives countless messages from women based in countries where they are less free to write than British women, thanking her for making the cause and importance of women's writing so visible. The global reach and accessibility of awards like the Baileys Prize contribute to making our bookshelves and media more diverse, encouraging readers to discover writing from other cultures and countries they may not have found on their own.
Change is happening, but slowly. For now, the truth is that with other awards, women are not competing on a level playing field. Until they are, we still need the Baileys Prize. As the Quietus put it, rather brilliantly: "the Baileys Prize does not exist to allow women to compete; we know that they can do that, and we know that they can win. It exists to keep their competition acknowledged, visible. It is an imperfect response to a nebulous problem, yet for now it serves a key function." And I, for one, can't wait to see who wins.
By Jane Bradley
How does this award remove any possibility of gender bias when it is inherently biased towards women?! I am not undermining the achievements of this award I just don't believe that you solve discrimination with more discrimination. I am very much in favour of promoting women's writing but to have an award that excludes male writers is patronising to women. Good literature is good literature - gender shouldn't even come into it. If you exclude or include someone because of their gender then you automatically degrade their ability. If I was a writer I would like to be judged on the same terms as male writers.
If I was a writer I would like to be judged on the same terms as male writers
Yes, but the whole point is that this doesn't currently happen; the statistics are right there in the piece. Despite writing more, women's books are under-reviewed and publicised and factors, such as the author's appearance, pull focus away from the work.
How does this award remove any possibility of gender bias when it is inherently biased towards women?!
It is not biased towards women, it is just women only. It removes any subconscious or concious bias between genders. It helps to redress the balance in the mainstream media.
Yes, gender shouldn't come into it...but it does. Men's literature has been favoured for years so to give a little space to attempt to balance it out is fantastic.
When it becomes a level playing field, prizes like this will become obsolete.
I've no doubt the award is well intentioned and has achieved a lot but to me women-only awards imply that the only way that women will get awards for literary achievements is if the competition is significantly narrowed. This may also inadvertently make more men get literary prizes because there is another option for women.
I don't think that creating special prizes for women is the answer to creating a level playing field. I don't believe that women's writing is under represented - the last two Booker winners have been women and the last Nobel award for literature went to a woman. Our culture is changing because women are more present in all walks of life. I don't want our appreciation of literature to be one that is segregated along gender lines - great literature is great literature.
Without shadow of a doubt this prize is important. Just because recent Bookers and Nobels have gone to women in now way redresses any imbalance. Women remain under-represented in all walks of life and across the world are subjected to increasing brutalities in an increasingly violent and patriarchal world. Women need to be heard, and this prize is one of those avenues. Clearly it generates publicity (and controversy), which is good, raises awareness of women's writing, as it should and pushes back against a male dominated world that, as noted in the piece, still favours men over women in terms of review inches. As prizes increase sales it is also an excellent way to allow more women to write more often and to be validated. It also validates the significant role women have as readers - we buy more books too!!
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