The Deep Rooted Sexism In Literary Awards


Literature appears to have a woman problem.

As Seattle-based, British-born author Nicola Griffith recently documented, most major literary awards go to books written by men or about men. “At the top of the prestige ladder, for the Pulitzer Prize women wrote zero out of 15 prize-winning books wholly from the point of view of a woman or girl. Zero,” she wrote in a blog post on her own site.

Griffith took a long look at the distribution of literary prizes. Not only did she count women authors, but Griffith also focused on whether the stories were about women or girls, or whether they were about men or boys. When you start to look at books that are by women and about women, the numbers look pretty dim. If only men’s stories are told, then women are relatively unrepresented.

Feminist writer Jessica Valenti recently challenged readers to think carefully about the creators of the entertainment they spend their leisure time with. “And like it or not, your taste in music, books, television or art says something about you: it sends a message about what you think is worth your time, what you think is interesting and who you think is smart,” she wrote.

CREDIT: Nicola Griffith
CREDIT: Nicola Griffith
CREDIT: Nicola Griffith
CREDIT: Nicola Griffith

Griffith, winner of several awards herself — including the Nebula and the James Tiptree Jr., said she was most surprised by the fact that this imbalance has actually gotten worse over the past 15 years since she first started her census. “When my first novel came out, I guess in the mid-’90s, I had a sense that something was a bit off, and I didn’t really put my finger on it,” she said in an interview with ThinkProgress. Griffith speculates that consolidation of publishing houses, the disappearance of independent bookstores, and the proliferation of chains that began in the late 1980s and ’90s led to what she calls a perception of scarcity.


“People revert, people regress when they perceive, when they feel like there’s no space. And so they revert to ‘what is known to be true’ which is, that men are more interesting, men are important, men have the important thing to say, and women are just, you know, fun, frivolous, domestic, light, all that nonsense that we’ve heard a million times,” she said.

But Griffith could only speculate about the root causes of gender imbalance in literature, which is why she began to back it up with hard data. It becomes a lot harder to ignore when you point out the disparities in stark numbers. While she suspects a lot of it has to do with unconscious bias and other more intangible questions, she also wonders if the solutions may not be so intractable. She speculated that “tweaks” to how publishers or award committees operated might help to keep women in the pipeline.

Griffith’s work has garnered international attention, with news outlets around the world — from India to Australia to the United States and the UK — signaling that her analysis has struck a nerve. “People are like, oh my god! You’ve done this wonderful study! I’m like, yeah I’ve just counted on my fingers and jotted things down on a bit of paper and made graphs,” Griffith said. “This is just a proof of concept, I suppose. I would want someone else to pick up the torch. I would be very happy to get behind and cheerlead. This is not something I want to own. I want the world to own this. I want the world to change.”

And indeed, others have. After reading Griffith’s post, Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie challenged publishers in a Guardian column to only publish women for a year. She quoted a judge of the Man Booker prize, who noted judges “read what publishers submit to us … [If] publishers only submit a fraction of women, then that is a function of systemic institutional sexism in our culture.” As a result, Shamsie found that Man Booker administrators said “slightly under” 40 percent of books submitted for the award were written by women. Despite this, women are over-represented, so to speak, on the shortlist, with women making up 46 percent.

So, as a corrective, Shamsie argued, publishers should only publish women for a year. “Why not have a Year of Publishing Women: 2018, the centenary of women over the age of 30 getting the vote in the UK, seems appropriate,” she wrote, assuring readers that “[m]any male writers would, I’m sure, back the campaign and refuse to submit their books for publication in the given year, while also taking an active part by reading, reviewing and recommending the books that were published.”


One small literary publisher, And Other Stories, took up her cause and promised to only publish women in 2018. Publisher Stefan Tobler noted that his house only publishes between ten and 12 titles a year, but somehow this year they managed to publish seven titles by men. “We have a wide range of people helping us with our choices, and our editors are women … and yet somehow we still publish more books by men than women.”

“And if we don’t do it, what is going to change?”

Griffith has started a “help count women’s voices” campaign to get a better sense of how this happens. “We need data. Data is like an MRI. It will give us a picture of the problem. Then we can fix it,” she wrote.

Griffith says she wants more “foot soldiers” in her effort to gather the necessary data. “The kind of help I want is for lots of people to take this and run with it. I want them to go off to their corner of the universe, whatever that is, whether it’s awards in Sweden, or Australia, and count,” she said, pointing out that she would love to let someone else take over as the leader of this cause. “I want to write novels, that’s what I do … I am holding the bag on this. I really don’t want to drop it because I think it’s really an important subject.”

But while it seems clear that a gender disparity exists, the ripple effects are much harder to calculate. It does seem that winning a literary prize is helpful for selling more books, but one study also found that it caused the popularity on review websites like Goodreads to plummet.

The authors of the study note that this is likely because the audience for the book dramatically increases after it gets attention from a prize, leaving readers to react more to the “hype” rather than the work. A number of authors interviewed about winning literary prizes noted that winning awards opened a number of doors for them — sometimes getting them an agent if they didn’t already have one — and made their work less likely to be rejected by literary journals.


“Awards matter,” Griffith told ThinkProgress. “Awards are signposts. They go on lists. Wikipedia has lists of the Pulitzer prize, they have a list of the Nebula award winners, lists of this and that and the other. All those people who didn’t win, they’re not on the list. They have disappeared. They get left behind, somehow.”

The challenges facing women in the literary space has been noted by VIDA Women in the Literary Arts for years, which tracks the number of women’s bylines and books reviewed in notable and well-respected literary publications. The numbers, they’ve found, have been dismal for women — though after a few years of public shaming, a number of journals have come closer to gender parity. Women are less likely to be reviewers, and they’re less likely to be reviewed (it also shows up on the display tables of bookstores).

The VIDA numbers inspired a campaign last year to ask people to take a pledge of “reading only women” in 2014. The American-based literary journal Critical Flame took it a step further, and dedicated the year to women and writers of color. “[N]othing will change if people do not act morally within their sphere of control,” wrote editor Daniel Pritchard.

Even before the efforts to diversify major literary awards began in the last few years, the idea that women are underrepresented has been so self-evident that some started the Orange prize (now called the Baileys, named after its new corporate sponsor) to honor the women who weren’t nominated for the Man Booker.

More recently, a group of online activists calling themselves the Sad Puppies (and the more extreme, Gamergate-inspired Rabid Puppies) complained that science fiction awards like the Hugo were going to too many women and focusing too much on social issues. Indeed, in 2014, women and people of color swept the Hugo awards, and this year, all Nebula winners but Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation — which incidentally features a female protagonist — beat out the competition. Now, the Puppies have been working to remake the slate of nominees to look more like “pure” hard science fiction.

The problem, of course, is that “social issues” are a matter of perspective and the science fiction genre has long been used to more closely examine underlying social constructs. But perhaps we don’t need a science fiction hypothetical to examine the gender biases at work in the literary genre. Perhaps we just need the data to show us what we’re doing wrong.


The post originally said the data was gathered for the literary publication Mslexia, but they only picked it up after the fact.