In news that will shock absolutely no-one, it was revealed yesterday that books written by women and about women are less likely to win major literary prizes.
Amongst the findings – compiled by author Nicola Griffith – was the depressing note that “women wrote zero out of 15 [Pulitzer] prize-winning books wholly from the point of view of a woman or girl”. The Booker Prize, National Book award, National Book Critics’ Circle award, Hugo and Newbery medal winners fared no better, suggesting that there is a pervasive gender inequality at work here. This enduring displacement of the female voice is a problem. As Griffith notes:
Women are more than half our culture. If half the adults in our culture have no voice, half the world’s experience is not being attended to, learnt from or built upon. Humanity is only half what we could be.
In Scotland, 52% of the population are women. What of our voices?
Just last month, the Scottish National Party proposed a Gender Balance Mechanism which would enable an all-women shortlist to be submitted in a constituency which has a retiring incumbent SNP MSP – as well as ensure that in any constituency in which more than one candidate is nominated, at least one candidate will be a woman. The Mechanism further stated that the NEC may take steps to balance the number of male and female candidates being submitted for ranking on the regional list.
We also learned this week that Scotland had the lowest rate of female unemployment in all of Europe in the last three months of 2014. These are but two disparate examples – indeed, hardly representative of women’s experience in general – but they demonstrate that gender equality in Scotland is undergoing some process of improvement in social, economic and political terms.
But what about our women writers? Do Scotland’s literary awards recognise the female experience? Are women represented in literature as they ought to be?
With the aid of some cheap pie charts, we see that in the past ten years, The Saltire Society Awards have been somewhat of a mixed bag. Though we have a 50% even split in the category of First Book of the Year, only The Echo Chamber by Luke Williams features a female protagonist at its heart. And, yes, you spotted that – Luke Williams is not a woman. A.L. Kennedy won for novel Day in 2007 (she also won the Costa Award), but with a tail-gunner as its lead protagonist, that leaves just one novel about a woman in a decade.
86% of recipients of the Book of the Year award have been male. Again, only one novel features a leading female, and that’s James Kelman’s Mo Said She Was Quirky. Figures show that sales of those books featured in the 2012 shortlist rose by 25% during the week after the shortlist was announced and by a further 32% a week later. By four weeks after the shortlist was announced, collective sales of those books shortlisted had more than trebled, illustrating just how significant the Saltire prize can be for a writer.
In 2012, the Society stated that “…this suite of awards truly reflects the commitment of civic Scotland to literature in all its forms.” A grand claim – one that, alas, they haven’t quite managed to reflect.
With sterling women writers like Denise Mina, Louise Welsh and Val McDermid previously making the shortlist, hopefully we’ll see this balance redressed soon. The 2015 shortlist will be announced this month, and I await its release with interest.
So far, it doesn’t seem like Scotland’s female voice fares any better than her American counterpart. Until we consider the Dundee International Book Prize. Not only does the prize recognise new voices in literature, it aims to celebrate and champion the voices of men and women from across four continents – it is perhaps the most innovative and inclusive literary award in Scotland.
With an even split of 50% male/female recipients, the prize can also boast that 50% of the winning texts have featured women protagonists written by women. Amy Mason’s The Other Ida, Nicola White’s In the Rosary Garden, Chris Longmuir’s Dead Wood, Fiona Dunscombe’s The Triple Point of Water and Claire-Marie Watson’s The Curewife all fall into this category, establishing the Dundee International Book Prize as perhaps the most representative literary prize in Scotland.
In the past decade, 35% of prize-winning novels in Scotland have been written by women. That’s not an inspiring figure, but neither is it completely disheartening. If I glance at my bookshelf right now, I see the collected works of Dame Muriel Spark, who won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the US Ingersoll Foundation TS Eliot Award in 1992 and the David Cohen Prize for her novels about women. Alongside it are critically acclaimed books by Kathleen Jamie, Jackie Kay and Janice Galloway. It’s not necessarily a story of out-and-out gloom. Women writers are fairly well represented by Scottish publishers.
But it’s books about women that seem to have stuttered. The decisions made over the past decade by the prize establishment suggest the female voice still struggles to find a place in our literary landscape, with male interiority remaining the focus of our novels and our prize panels.
The female experience remains despairingly underrepresented in literary awards – a persistent cultural bias against which we should rail, not just to challenge tradition, but to bring to life the voices of those who constitute over half our population.