Friday, April 23, 2010

It's a Man's World

Anyone who thinks that there is no need for the Orange Prize or any form of such positive discrimination for women, should read Bidisha's witty and excoriating assessment of the gender imbalance in the arts in today's Guardian. She presents an irrefutable list of instances (including review pages, arts events, festivals, theatre, literary prizes) which are overwhelmingly balanced in favour of men. She notes that
in 41 years of the Booker prize the jury has been male dominated 30 times. There have been 28 male winners and 15 female winners. That said, the one time there were four women and one man on the jury, in 1986, they chose Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils over Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. God. Why do women love misogynists so much? Is it Stockholm syndrome? [Yes, I'd say: women are always bending over backwards not to be thought feminists or even female.]
She comments that
it's all the more galling given that women equal or outnumber men as attendees of arts festivals, concerts, readings, discussions and debates, and as arts and humanities students at university. Women write, read, edit and publicise more fiction than men Women make up the majority of executive, PR and organisational staff in arts and cultural institutions. Women's ticket revenue, licence fees, book purchases and entrance fees are being used to fund events at which women artists and thinkers are marginalised with breathtaking obviousness.
She points out too how the perception of this situation is skewed - even for those with the truth most closely under their noses:
When I was judging the Orange prize last year we all noticed how major bookshops consistently stacked 10 men's books to every one woman's book on its "recommended read" tables – in whatever genre. In one bookshop, fellow judge Martha Lane Fox was told barefacedly by the sales guy that this was because men published 10 times as much fiction as women.
She's sick, she says, of being the token woman on panels, and she's no longer prepared 'to give my time and attention – and implicitly, my support – to any event, such as the debates at How The Light Gets In, that gives space to five times as many men as women.'

I suppose this means that she'll no longer light up the discussions on Newsnight Review, or whatever it's called since it dumbed itself down, and on which, I've always noted, the men panelists outnumber the women. Shame.

30 comments:

WOMEN RULE WRITER said...

Thanks for this link, E.
"The solution to discrimination is female solidarity and the deliberate concentration of women's power." Hear hear.
When I mention gender imbalance in the lit world to male writers they get very defensive and dismissive. It drives me MAD.

Sara Crowley said...

Thanks for sharing this, Elizabeth. How depressing. Sadly your comment that "...women are always bending over backwards not to be thought feminists or even female" rings true. There are female writers/readers who seem to afford more respect to male writing so it is not only men who contribute to the imbalance. The male voice is accorded a gravitas that the female rarely is, and that seriousness is rewarded.

SueG said...

yes, sad but true. And also exasperating because I think we have made important strides in many arenas, but not yet this one. Thanks for the link.

mayo ninja said...

yes it's a terrible shame, especially when you consider that the majority of readers of novels ( my favoured medium )are female. i can't remember the last time i read a novel by a man, i just find women's voices more appealing.

however, i don't think it's for men to actively try to redress this imbalance (even if they had a clue how to go about it!), after all it's obviously been ingrained in society since long before i was born. women should, i think, ask themselves how they've allowed this to happen, not just to writing but to human life in general; i teach children self-defence and the girls are about 5 years ahead of the boys so why do men have the upper hand in adult life? especially since the boys are raised, i assume, largely by their mothers....

Elizabeth Baines said...

Depends who has the power, though doesn't it? Partly, yes, I think it's a question of sometimes women having the power to change things and not using it because they've internalized the concept that the male is the norm/better - mothers, the women whom Bidisha says are the arts organisers etc. On the other hand, one can't help thinking that in the latter case there's always a man right at the top of the pyramid calling the shots...

Elizabeth Baines said...
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mayo ninja said...

yes elizabeth, that's almost certainly the case. the "default setting" if you're female and not bothered either way seems to be just to go with the flow of what's happening around you.

i can't help feeling that perhaps the time to act may have been when i was a young adult (mid-80s); there were some awfully extreme feminist voices flying about that were so militant as to discredit the middle ground of real equality-seeking feminists (who were not necessarily all female!).

if only there'd been some way then for "sisters" to moderate each other in the common cause of being taken not just more seriously, but really seriously, equality might have become a genuinely viable proposition

Elizabeth Baines said...
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Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes that was a crucial time. I could see then how it would go - if only because my own father really hated (and probably feared) the 'hairy feminists' as he called them, and whenever I said anything remotely feminist he categorized me as one of them. Easy to see how many women would be frightened of being identified with hate figures...

mayo ninja said...

yes, and it's so nice to speak to someone who remembers the era and understands my perspective. i have never understood the tolerance for inequality of any kind.

sadly, though, "bra-burners" or extremists of any kind play into the hands of the nay-saying middle ground press and blinkered bar-stool pundits

Bob Jacobs said...

The Guardian article claims (as you've quoted) that "in 41 years of the Booker prize ... There have been 28 male winners and 15 female winners."

That should immediately ring alarm bells for anyone who studied maths at primary school. Perhaps maths is not Bidisha's strong point.

It also states that the jury has been male-dominated 30 times. The inference, presumably, is that male juries have a tendency to pick male winners.

If you look a little closer you'll find that the percentage of women in the shortlist over the 41 years is approximately 37.1%, while the percentage of women authors selected as winners is 36.6%. Anyone with any statistical knowledge at all will tell you that the difference is not statisticallly significant. In fact, it suggests that over the 41 years of the Booker prize the representation of women authors picked as winners almost exactly matches the representation of women authors shortlisted (i.e. the pool of authors the often male-dominated juries had to select from.)

Is there discrimination against women in literary prizes? I have no idea. Perhaps there is. But in my opinion Bidisha's use of Booker Prize statistics in this article is shoddy and reduces the credibility of her argument. I get the impression she formed the conclusion first then looked for evidence that supported it, rather than gathered the evidence and drew the conclusion.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Woops, yes that maths is definitely wrong! Guess Bidisha counted up wrong! But unless she's just making it up altogether, I don't think it the difference would have been statistically significant, would it? ie, 28 male and 13 female, or 27 male and 14 female or even 29 male and 12 female?

And as for the judges' relationship to the short list: to my knowledge it is the judges themselves who choose the shortlist, and indeed the longlist, out of the novels sent to them by publishers ie they read all the books entered for the prize. Now whether a bias lies in the novels chosen by publishers to send in for it...

mayo ninja said...

to quote bob jacobs:


"I get the impression she formed the conclusion first then looked for evidence that supported it, rather than gathered the evidence and drew the conclusion."

a touch cynical, perhaps, but very possible given the circumstances. and anyone numerically-minded enough to quote statistics in an article really couldn't fail to add 28 and 15 correctly. maybe it was a typo? maybe the whole article was full of typos? what passes for proof-reading standards nowadays is really shocking...

but seriously, yes , the judges can only choose from the books submitted so i think there is the culprit: the publisher. if i may throw in my own prejudice paranoia story: i began submitting to publishers and agents under a female pseudonym after 2 of them claimed my female voice didn't work. ever since, there's been no problem. and nowadays i just submit under my initials and guess what? everyone assumes i'm female. so is there a suspicion amongst publishers of men writing as women ? i think so.

Elizabeth Baines said...

That's very interesting. It does raise some issues about reader-preconceptions, or at least publisher-assumptions about reader-preconceptions.

mayo ninja said...
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Vanessa Gebbie said...

Surely it ought to be irrelevant what sex the writer is, just as irrelevant as the colour of their hair or skin.

Its the breadth and depth of the fiction, as well as the quality, that matters, surely?

Just read Thinner than a Hair, the most marvellous debut novel by Bosnian writer Adnan Mahmutovic. Written with a female protag, first person narrative, It beat off 400 entries to win Cinnamon Press's competition last year. And yet an agent who was interested in his work turned him down when they discovered he was a bloke.

I reckon it makes him a better writer, not a worse one!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Amazing! And sickening. ie that the author was turned down because he was a man.

This thread of course now relates to the other ones we had on my author blog, and both of yours, V and Sara...

I agree, it makes him the better writer if no one knows he's a man from the writing. For me one of the things which makes fiction a powerful political force is its possibilities for empathy...

mayo ninja said...

hmm... leaves me seriously considering never telling anyone my sex... my latest novel has been recommended by the boss of the agency to the YA specialist who promises a verdict next week. if they turn me down once i tell them my full name, you will be hearing from me about it(and so will the press!)

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Yup, it struck me that the topics overlapped, E. Again, maybe a symptom of the fact that people seem unable to separate the writing from the writer - and increasingly, that viewpoint seems to apply to other writers as well, which is desperately sad.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Had I better delete your earlier comment then? I was going to email you about this but couldn't find an address for you.

Elizabeth Baines said...

That last comment was addressed to mayo

mayo ninja said...

i've given all this considerable thought over the last couple of days, and am wondering at the wisdom of my approach... i.e. that i've just realised i appear to be trying to bat for the losing side, so to speak.

but no, we should all be brave here. if rosie alison can hold her nerve and refuse to exploit trade contacts to promote her work, even through failing to get a single review after struggling to get an indie publisher, then we should do whatever it takes. we mightn't all end up on a short list but hey
, do it because you enjoy it, right?

so, if your publisher suggests submitting your novel for a prize, make it clear that you won't accept it unless the panel is 50-50 male /female. then you will have made your point loud and clear.

Sara Crowley said...

A woman who writes a male character, a man who writes a female character, a human who writes an alien, from pov of a cat, whatever - these are the tools of fiction writers. To discriminate against a male author because he has written a female character is bizarre, especially because he has clearly written well. It is an entirely different thing to the issues that were discussed on my blog.

Elizabeth Baines said...

I saw them as linked - for me, anyway, Sara - because you discussed the feelings you had as a writer about 'writing what you know' and writing about what you don't know first-hand. And I too have exactly those feelings: I really don't want to write about something unless I know I've got a real emotional handle on it, and I dread misrepresenting the experience of those who have experienced what I haven't - for example, the instance you use about learning difficulties.

But I do agree that there are two things getting mixed up here, and those are the RIGHT of any writer to write about the experience of others, and the question of whether they do it successfully. It seems to me that because you can't always get it right, and sometimes writers don't, then some contstituencies have decided that writers don't have the right to TRY to write outside their own experience, which is clearly nonsense.

mayo ninja said...

many good points made there - I must say I was shocked at the presumption that as a man writing in first person my character would be male; isn't fiction precisely all about invention ? slightly away from the subject of the blog, agreed , but definitely linked

Sara Crowley said...

I agree with you, Elizabeth. Every writer absolutely has the right to write outside their own experiences, of course, otherwise we'd all be incredibly limited in our subjects.

Pale Jesson said...

Hello,

In one of the years of the Booker prize there were two joint winners. Bidisha's counting is not wrong.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for that, info, Pale. (That's the kind of clarification that so often gets subedited out of articles fore reasons of space!)

mayo ninja said...

yes and anyway 95% of statistics are made up in the first place! LOL

wasn't it nice to see Troubles winning the lost booker? it was for me anyway cos i won €400 on it! but seriously, wonderful to see recognition for a worthy novel that missed out first time round. if you get to reading it, elizabeth, i think you'll find his voice is definitely on the female side

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, wonderful that it's getting that recognition! It's on my (huge) TBR list (on which I'm not making many inroads at the mo as I'm very immersed in writing a novel of my own).