Kay: New Prize Aims to Recognize Female Writers

Let’s lead with the no-news bad news: women don’t win literary awards. Further, books written about women don’t win any awards, either.

I bet you’re shocked. Shocked!

Despite a couple of recent breakthroughs in 2018 (Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood shared the Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other and The Testaments, respectively; Susan Choi won the National Book Award for fiction for Trust Exercise; the award for nonfiction went to Sarah M. Broom for The Yellow House), women haven’t begun to reach parity with men in the book awards realm. (Evaristo, the first black woman to win the Booker, said in her acceptance speech, “I hope that honor doesn’t last too long.”)

Researcher Nicola Griffith looked at the Pulitzer, Booker, National Book Awards, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, Hugo Award, and Newbery Medal winners from 2000–2015. Want to guess how many women won Pulitzers in those years who wrote about women or girls? You’d be correct if you guessed zero. How many women won Pulitzers writing about men or boys? Three. Are women interesting? Evidently not to the Pulitzer committee.

That said, in terms of representation, the Hugo committee did a bit better and the Newbery folks did a lot better than the other literary prizes. (The Newbery is a prize for children’s literature.) So, okay.

Susan Swan, a Canadian novelist, did her own research and discovered the same trend. She found that not only did women not feature among literary prize winners, but their books weren’t reviewed as often or as well, either.

Here comes the good news: Swan teamed up with Janice Zawerbny, who works in book publishing, to create a new annual prize, the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction. The prize begins in 2022 and will award C$150,000, about US$113,000, for a work of fiction published in the previous year by a woman or nonbinary person. (By comparison, the Booker Prize awards £50,000, roughly US$65,000; the Pulitzer Prize, US$15,000; and the National Book Award, US$10,000. The Nobel Prize laureates receive nearly US$1 million.)

Books published in English in the United States and Canada will be eligible for the Carol Shields Prize, including works translated from Spanish or French. Writers must be citizens and current residents, for at least five years, of the United States or Canada.

Carol Shields wrote novels, short stories, and poetry and won the Pulitzer for her novel The Stone Diaries. Zawerbny and Swan named the prize after her because of her dual Canadian and U.S. citizenship and for elevating into literary material the lives of ordinary women, something Swan said has often been wrongly dismissed as lightweight or unimportant by male critics.

About her work, Shields said, ”My novels have centered on half a dozen concerns—the lives of women, notions of gender, the force of time, the genesis of art, synchronicity, the relationship of fiction and biography.” She died of complications of breast cancer in 2003.

So, do any of you have a book out there that might qualify?

2 thoughts on “Kay: New Prize Aims to Recognize Female Writers

  1. Your statistics about the number of prizes awarded to women writers or to stories written about women is disappointing although not surprising. I’d be curious to know who is on the committees that awards those prizes and how many of those members are women. I have a guess about that.

    That’s great news about the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction. Too bad we have to wait until 2022 to find out who the first winner is.

  2. I’m not sure how the Pulitzer committee—-or any of these committees—-is chosen, but I think it’s all writers, rather than, say, editors or publishers or agents. But in addition to gender bias, we know there are other problems, too, because the Pulitzer committee, if I remember correctly, did not award a prize one year recently because of some conflict of interest. It’s great that the Carol Shields prize has such a big monetary award, because the literary world will take that seriously.

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