Judging Women

TSaltireBookshe 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…)

Saltire SocietyOne of the ongoing analyses of the data comes from Louise Hutcheson, who has done a bit of north-of-the-border number-crunching to assess the Scottish book prize scene. One of the prizes she looked at was the Saltire Society Literary Awards, for which I was a judge from 2011-2014. In the past ten years, the First Book of the Year Award, she observes, had a 50/50 split for male/female authors, though subject matter was much more noticeably male. For the Literary Award, the ratio is more concerning: 86% male writers to 14% women.

In the four year I was a judge, the gender count for the winners was as follows (I’m going to concentrate solely here on authorship, rather than content or protagonists):


  • Literary Award: Ali Smith How to be Both (Female)
  • First Book Award: Niall Campbell Moontide (Male)


  • Literary Award: John Burnside Something Like Happy (Male)
  • First Book Award: Eunice Buchanan As Far as I Can See/Tim Armstrong Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach (Female/Male – shared award)


  • Literary Award: James Kelman Mo Said She Was Quirky (Male)
  • First Book Award: Sarah Fraser The Last Highlander (Female)


  • Literary Award: Alasdair Gray A Life in Pictures (Male)
  • First Book Award: Luke Williams The Echo Chamber (Male)

So, on balance, in the years in which I had a role, the awards did in fact go more frequently to men (6 out of 9 of the awards). So what was my responsibility for this unequally gendered list?

I went into the judging meetings with my eyes open. From my own prior study (including in the archives of the Booker Prize), I was aware how literary prizes winners largely emerge via a process of consensus. Judges storming out of the room is the exception, rather than the norm. Books can win because everyone likes them a bit, rather than a couple of people liking them a lot. Certainly my experience judging the Saltire Society Awards was evidence of this. For the first couple of years I sat on the panel the arithmetical way we worked towards the winners undoubtedly favoured the books which achieved consensus. In the latter years, we moved towards a more discursive mode, but overall the process was still very collegiate, and focused on finding a book that everyone was happy with as a winner.

But how did these modes of judgement relate to the question of gender?

At times it seemed to me that our panel, collectively, had a bias against more experimental, difficult writing (a mode about which it can be hard to achieve consensus). Some of the writing of our strongest Scottish female authors could be described in this way (which rather goes against an identification of female authorship as more engaged with the ‘domestic’).

To be specific, I think it a clear oversight that we didn’t shortlist Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music in 2012. To my mind, it was by far and away the most ambitious (read, difficult) novel of its year. I was also very disappointed that A L Kennedy’s The Blue Book hadn’t won the previous year. Another tricky, difficult book by an experimental female writer that we passed over. Most recently, however, a writer in the same vein did take the Literary Award: Ali Smith, for How to be Both.

How to be bothHow to be Both went on to be multiply garlanded – the Costa Novel of the Year, the Goldsmiths Prize, and just this week the Baileys Prize. It didn’t take the Saltire Society Book of the Year prize, although this award needs some glossing. 2014 was the first year in which there was a genuine structure where the category winners (History, Research, First Book, Poetry, and Literary) competed for the overall spot (as with the Costa Awards). The Book of the Year went to the Research Award category winner, Bob Harris and Charles McKean’s The Scottish Town in the Age of the Enlightenment. I argued for Smith’s book to be the overall winner, but didn’t prevail.

Was this a failure in my own rhetorical powers? Quite possibly. Or perhaps, my own tacit acknowledgement that consensus would out, that taste differed among individual judges, and that not everyone shared my love of the experimental (particularly when penned by women)?

I enjoyed the collaborative process of decision-making. In judging meetings I observed my fellow judges, and myself, listen carefully to each other, go back to books and reread them, revise their opinions, and eventually make a collective decision. In a similar vein, an early draft of this article was shared with fellow judges, and (I hope) more closely and fairly reflects the judging process. The Society, via Stevie Marsden, has now posted some of the other judges’ thoughts on this question here.

Nonetheless, at some points the judging meetings were, for me, frustrating. Not because my co-judges weren’t listening or displayed any aspects of prejudice (far from it), but because my desire is to want to discuss and make evident issues of ideology and identity. Is there any connection between Gunn, Kennedy and Smith’s gender and their innovative, sometimes wilful modes of writing? Very hard to prove. A connection between gender and writing style is difficult to establish, as is proving that one style, and gender, is privileged over another via judging processes. But I remember that one of the greatest travesties in Booker’s history is that Angela Carter never won. This fact, and that the Baileys Prize is still more than necessary in redressing the balance, makes the issue of gender in literary prizes an important consideration for me – one that should be foregrounded.

It’s more than evident to me that the Saltire Society isn’t a prejudiced organisation. In recent years, it has worked closely with Glasgow Women’s Library, including on the Outstanding Women of Scotland project (the inaugural list for which includes, alongside Nicola Sturgeon, the authors Jackie Kay and Liz Lochhead). The panel for the Literary Award has been in recent years near-balanced or balanced in gender terms, with female judges who self-identify as feminist (including Joyce MacmillanAnn Matheson and Jenny Niven, as well as me).

MoontideIdeology, of course, is always present: it’s just that we don’t always see it if it’s the prevailing, or even establishment, ideology. Does that even infect my own thinking? Did it influence my own judgement that Niall Campbell’s finely wrought first poetry collection Moontide was better than Kirsty Logan’s queer gothic The Rental Heart and Other Stories, or Anneliese McIntosh’s searing, painful novel-as-stories Any Other Mouth last year? Literary judgement is hard to qualify, let alone quantify; and it’s far too simplistic to think that female judges advocate for books by women; and men vice versa.

But data should come to our aid in these questions. Nicola Griffith is calling for support in its collection, and there’s surely some work to be done in Scotland. But let’s not just count up book prize winners, or even shortlistees. I would always urge anyone to look back and forwards through the book chain when attempting to work out what’s going on. Judges work from submitted titles: are more books by men submitted for them to consider than by women? The answer for the Saltire Society is yes: submissions of female-authored books to the Literary and First Book of the Year are normally around 30-40% of the submitted list. Judges, therefore, are choosing from an already skewed list. From 2011-14 this proportion of submissions was therefore replicated by the 3 out of 9 female winners.

Are more books by men, with ‘male’ topics or protagonists getting published, or more heavily promoted, then? Or selected by their publishers to submit to prizes which limit submissions per company? How does gender operate within book reviewing? (VIDA does a count every year of selected and largely literary journals; the Stella Count does a similar job in Australia, as well as running a prize for women’s fiction.) PhD researcher Stevie Marsden is working on a study of the Saltire Society awards, with a particular interest in gender, and her results are likely to inform our understanding of literary judgement processes. The project currently undertaken by James English (author of a key text on cultural awards, The Economy of Prestige) is attempting to quantify aesthetic value via a correlation of books-as-texts, and their bestselling and/or prize-winning pathways. These two projects could usefully be put into conversation in thinking through content and success.

Publishing is an oddly gendered business. My classes at the Stirling Centre for International Publishing & Communication are largely filled by young women wanting to get into the publishing industry. Lower and middle levels of the business are substantially populated by women. As Alison Flood reports, though, the glass ceiling effect is still very much in play, and in recent months we seem to have taken a step back at CEO level, as women who developed their careers under second-wave feminism in the 1970s retire. Women read more than men, and we are particularly anxious about boys (not) reading; an anxiety which has intensified since reading became part of a social inclusion agenda in the 1990s.

Virago was founded over 40 years ago; and feminist magazine Spare Rib now has its rightful place in the British Library, in print and digitally. But we all need to be constantly watchful about explicit and implicit prejudice: foreground ideology; add things up; and never be afraid to interrogate the reason why statistics aren’t as close as possible to 50/50.

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