The writer Nicola Griffith has recently published the results of quantifying the success – or largely otherwise – of books by women and books about women in a number of major literary awards.
Predictably, this makes for depressing reading. Books by women are less likely to win than those by men, and books about women (whether by women or men) are also less likely recipients of awards than books about men. From such statistics it would seem that we do not value female writers as much as male, and female protagonists (or topics, whatever that might mean – commentary hovers around the ‘domestic’) as much as male.
This is an all-too familiar account, which the introduction of the Orange (now Baileys) Women’s Prize for Fiction in 1996 sought to overcome, after a year in which no women were shortlisted at all for the Booker. Twenty years on, and we don’t seem to have moved that far forwards.
In my book Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, I wrote a set of case studies of bestselling, more or less literary novels. One of the books (or, in this example, series of books), was Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. The final novel, The Ghost Road, won the Booker in 1995. My analysis ran along the following lines: that Barker came to prominence – in both critical and commercial terms – after moving from the feminist press Virago to be published by Viking/Penguin. She had also switched her subject matter from ‘”gritty feminist sagas”‘ set in the north of England to a focus on the first world war, with a cast of predominantly male characters. This shift occasioned some interesting comment, including one from a (female) Booker judge of that year. The judge stated that she would never have guessed that Barker’s book was written by a woman. Her reasoning was based on stylistic grounds, rather than its subject matter (which, as it happened, had questions of gender and sexuality at its heart).
The publication of Griffiths’ data presents an opportunity for me to reflect on my own practice, as a scholar who studies literary prizes, a literary prize judge, and a feminist. (I’m also currently writing a children’s book in which the female protagonist spends most of the plot dressed up as a boy, but that’s a different story…)