Everyone was so busy celebrating Hilary Mantel’s second Booker Prize victory last week that it was easy to overlook the announcement that another of our literary prizes has been saved from extinction. The Orange Prize had lost its sponsor — but has been rescued by a group of women sponsors, including Cherie Blair. It ought to be a matter of rejoicing — but the notion of a women-only prize is still deeply contentious.
The usual complaint is that a prize for literature by women is patronising, outdated, and isn’t fair to men. Despite the fact that pretty much every prize discriminates against something in its entry requirements — be that nationality, age or genre — none seems to generate quite as much fuss as this one.
On the face of it, of course it is unfair that there is a women’s prize for fiction when there isn’t one for men — this argument is lent more weight by Mantel’s Booker successes (though this is only the 16th year the Booker has been awarded to a woman, compared with the 30 times it has been won by a man). But any qualms should evaporate on looking at the imbalance of the wider literary world, which is so tilted in favour of men.
Firstly, the way books are packaged is incredibly sexist. Novels by women tend to be priced lower than novels by men. More novels by women appear only in paperback, whereas novels by men are more likely to have a hardback edition too. And novels by women often — however serious the content — have covers trussed up in a gaudy manipulation of ‘feminine’, by which I mean an italicised title, usually pink, and a picture of a woman looking wistful. The packaging makes these novels look lowbrow. If publishers are set on downgrading women’s writing, it is vital to have a prize that lifts some literary gems out of this hideous pink mire.
Secondly, there is a great deal of sexism when it comes to reviewing books. Every year, an organisation called Vida counts the proportion of literary articles by and about women versus those by and about men. In 2011’s count it found the following about the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. In the LRB, 58 female authors were reviewed, as opposed to 168 male. In the TLS, 332 female authors were reviewed, compared to 982 male. This inequality extends to the gender of the reviewers themselves — in the LRB there were 29 female reviewers to 155 male; in the TLS, 344 female to 819 male. Evidently, books written by women and women’s opinions on books are given minimal space in our literary journals. Last time I picked up a copy of the LRB, I realised that, letters aside, I had to leaf through more than 20 pages before I found anything written by or about a woman. This literally marginalises women writers. It implies that to be a serious reader, you must be a man and mainly read books written by men.
Finally, throughout our reading lives we are encouraged to read more novels by men than by women. However many women authors are inserted into the literary canon, the majority are men. Even looking at the 20th century, there are many more books by men deemed to be ‘modern classics’ than by women. Hemingway, Bellow, Fitzgerald, Joyce and James dwarf Carter and Woolf.
Against this background, publishers like Virago and Persephone Books strive to bring neglected women novelists to our attention. Virago publish a beautiful hardback collection of their own modern classics, including books by Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor and Muriel Spark. Persephone Books, who publish such wonderful writers as Dorothy Whipple, Elizabeth Jenkins and Monica Dickens, might well have looked at the ghastly covers that contemporary women writers are forced to endure and, in protest, have chosen plain grey, with exquisite patterned endpapers. We can only hope that men pay these jewels as much attention as women do.
I wish the Women’s Prize for Fiction were outdated. I wish the literary establishment looked upon all novels of today and of yesterday with an impartial eye to gender, and valued Whipple’s literary exploration of the domestic as much as they value Flaubert’s. But this is not the case. Until every reviewer has read as many books by women as by men, and novels by women cost the same as ones by men, and we are as likely to find on the front page of a literary journal an article by or about a woman as one by or about a man, we must do everything we can for women’s writing. The Women’s Prize for Fiction is a vital means of giving women readers and writers the literary respect they deserve.
Hilary Mantel’s first award was The Spectator’s 1987 Shiva Naipaul prize. Entries for this year’s prize must be sent to Lucy@spectator.co.uk by 30 October.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012