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First Women’s Prize for Non-fiction Inaugurated

By Sarah Frideswide

 

With the amount of publicity there now is around raising the profile of women across society, there is a frequent complaint from men that this is sexist and they are being shoved to the sidelines. That is, in fact, not the case. It just so happens that the inherent male bias which dominates every aspect of society is accepted as the norm (especially by many men who would like to keep it that way). Studies suggest that women publish more books than men and are often getting higher sales. However, according to Kate Mosse in the Guardian, although women are now responsible for at least half of the books published in fiction and non-fiction, regarding pay and recognition, men still gain the lion’s share. This is backed up by statistics which, if we take the highest profile literary awards on their own, show that The Man Booker Prize has been awarded to thirty-one men and sixteen women in its history. The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to 114 individuals; of these, just fourteen are women. Of the sixty-five Pulitzer Prizes in Fiction awarded since 1948, eighteen have been given to women. This echoes a wider problem across all sectors of society, where women are working hard but not being paid as much or given the recognition their male counterparts receive. Kate Mosse and the team who founded the Women’s Prize for Fiction are seeking to help rectify that by making sure that female authors gain recognition.


The advantage of having a literary prize exclusively for women is that it raises the profile of women's work and actively demonstrates that this is just as high quality and deserving of recognition as anything produced by men. The Women’s Prize for Fiction has been running for twenty-eight years and has the weight of its longevity to give it authority and publicity. When it was initially launched, there was a lot of controversy surrounding it. Many felt it sexist, with some well-known authors being quoted as saying they would never enter it. Kingsley Amis said, “One can hardly take the winner of this [prize] seriously.” This suggests that he thought women’s writing was automatically inferior to men's. According to Britta Zangen of Heinrich-Heine Universitat, one of the reasons for the hostility was that the prize flat out excludes men and “whereas women are so used to this kind of discrimination that many of us hardly realise or pay little attention to it, men – unused to it – were outraged  about  this  open  discrimination based on their  sex.” Thankfully, attitudes have improved since then, although we still have a long way to go.


One area in which the gender disparity is startling is non-fiction. It is lagging behind the progress made in fiction regarding gender equality. There are numerous reasons for this, one of which is that it lacks the glamour of fiction. “Non-fiction prizes in general ‘feel much less widely known than their fiction equivalents,’ notes Hayden’s editor at HarperCollins, Jo Thompson. ‘I imagine most people would quickly call to mind the Booker and the Women’s prize, whereas the Cundill [history] prize or the Baillie Gifford aren’t household names in the same way.’” [Guardian, 2024] The statistics are appalling. According to Hannah Rose Woods of the New Statesman, “Last year, just over a quarter of non-fiction reviews in national newspapers were of books written by women. Books written by men were twice as likely to be selected in lists of the best books of the year. Over the past decade, across seven UK non-fiction prizes, only 36 per cent of books awarded a prize were written by a female writer.” Authors of colour, who are working-class or disabled or from the LGBTQ community, are, of course, even harder hit.


Enter Kate Mosse and the team behind the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Their work celebrating women's literary accomplishments is now going to be applied to non-fiction as well. The inception of the Women’s Prize for Non-fiction has been welcomed by many, including Mary Beard, who says, “Close your eyes and think of a historian, and most people see an elderly white man. The newly announced Women’s Prize for Non-fiction will be very useful.”  It will, indeed. It can be hoped that the recognition it elicits will also bring improvements to the ongoing pay gap in publishing as well as to society’s overall attitude towards women and their expertise. 

         

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