In 1929, Virginia Woolf famously wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Whilst a lot may have changed since the 1920s, Woolf’s sentiment in her essay A Room of One’s Own, that in order for women to write as men have been able to, they must have their own separate place in which to write, still holds true. Whilst the issue of women having their own income and property is a lot less contentious than it was in Woolf’s time, the idea of a separate space for women, in which to express and celebrate their creative talents, still provokes debate; most notably with the annual announcement of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
The prize, which describes itself as “the UK’s most prestigious annual book award celebrating and honouring fiction written by women” was founded in 1996, inspired by the all-male shortlist for the Booker prize in 1991. This year’s winner, chosen by a panel of five leading women in a variety of fields, was Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet: a work centred around the death of Shakespeare’s son. Hamnet was chosen from a shortlist of six novels which included Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other; Angie Cruz’s Dominicana; as well as novels by Natalie Haynes, Hilary Mantel and Jenny Offill. However, after last year’s Booker prize was awarded jointly to two women (a historical moment in which Evaristo and Canadian author Margaret Atwood shared the prize), is a separate prize for women’s writing still necessary?
In the prize’s description of itself as “celebrating and honouring fiction written by women” there is a conscious nod to the years of criticism and trivialisation targeted at literature written by women. The misogyny that pervades the publishing industry may be seen in the way “women’s literature” or “chick lit” is undermined; often thought of as being fluffy and overly domestic in theme.
Kate Mosse, a co-founder of the prize, attested to the fact that even though “the majority of consumers and library lenders are women”, the genre of ‘women’s fiction’ was “being under-represented” in mainstream literary prizes. Whilst the suggestion that fiction written by women constitutes a separate genre perhaps speaks to the very marginalisation of women’s literature, the prize aims to remove the stereotype surrounding women’s fiction. In this way, the Women’s Prize for Fiction acts as a reparative or ameliorating institution; improving the perception of fiction written by women after years of negative press (or even no press at all). Furthermore, given that over two thirds of books bought in the UK are purchased by women, it makes sense to have a prize that reflects this trend: a prize created by women for the women that consume the majority of literature published.
Nevertheless, since the prize’s inception, it has faced backlash from women and men alike, with accusations of misandry thrown at the gender criterion and with some critics suggesting that the prize is patronising and belittling to the women that win it. Furthermore, the very category of ‘women’ implies a strict and outdated gender binary that is not representative of many people’s experiences with gender. Our understanding of the fluidity of gender has progressed since the prize was founded in 1996. By relying on the binary term ‘women’, the prize risks excluding people who do not feel comfortable with such a label and are already marginalised within the publishing industry. It is fundamental that all good works are recognized, to celebrate a diverse range of voices within the writing community.
Author A. S. Byatt (winner of the 1990 Booker prize) has refused to have her work considered for the prize, deeming it “sexist” and accusing it of “assuming that there is a feminine subject matter”.Other critics of the prize have suggested that the prize ghettoises women’s fiction, detaching it from bigger and more mainstream awards and encouraging separation of works as between genders. In fact, as others have pointed out, writers, readers, and publishers are overwhelmingly female; surely it should be young boys rather than girls being encouraged to read?
I believe that the original motivation behind the creation of the Women’s Prize for Fiction has been forgotten; the focus having shifted to criticising the prize for its exclusion of men as opposed to addressing the sobering reality of a literary world which continues to employ male judges to choose male winners for mainstream prizes. And why should the very existence of a prize for a specific group be condemned? The MOBO awards, which have celebrated music of black origins since they were first awarded in 1996, legitimise excellence in music for those who have traditionally been overlooked by the mainstream British music industry. Carving out a specific space for the recognition of achievements should not be viewed negatively, particularly when it celebrates art created by marginalised groups.
Another example of a prize which seeks to celebrate work done by often overlooked groups is the King Lear Arts prize, which was created this year in order to reach out to and encourage creativity in the over-70s by seeking to recognize their short stories, poetry, plays, art and music. This prize, as well as seeking to allay the boredom that many over-70s were experiencing during lockdown after being forced to shield, also seeks to create a space in the arts world for an older generation. This not only provides space and recognition for their work, but also encourages the very creation of art: something that should never be perceived negatively.
Further criticism of the Women’s Prize for Fiction cites the fact that whilst the audience addressed by awards such as the MOBO awards or the King Lear prize share a cultural heritage or tradition, women have no common cultural background or heritage as such that deserves to be recognized. This argument was raised by Cynthia Ozick, who pointed out that there are an abundance of prizes “for black writers, for Christian writers, for Jewish writers”, each of whom share a common cultural heritage, which women do not.
Yet, once again, this serves only to advance the argument for the Women’s Prize. The fact that women, making up 52% of the world’s population, have no single, common experience is something that the Women’s Prize for Fiction should, and does, celebrate. The international reach of the prize is something that ought to be praised: the only criterion for nomination is female authorship and the prize seeks to recognize translated work. Byatt’s accusation that the prize assumes “a feminine subject matter” is grossly miscalculated in light of the prize’s global reach.
Last year’s prize was awarded to An American Marriage by African-American author Tayari Jones; a novel which deals with the effects of incarceration on a black couple and explores the reality of racial injustice in the US. This book, which is both powerfully written and fundamental in exposing the deep-rooted racism in both the USA and the UK, shatters the common perception that women’s literature is trivial in theme.
The importance of the Women’s Prize for Fiction is no better encapsulated for me than in Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. The shortlisted novel, which follows the lives of twelve characters in the UK, speaks to the very multiplicity of being a woman. Evaristo’s characters, whilst intertwined, all live very different lives, and the power of the novel lies in its exploration of the intersections of race, sexuality and gender across a host of women’s lives. Evaristo’s novel demonstrates why the Women’s Prize for Fiction is so important in creating space for a diverse array of voices, even within the bounds of the female sex and gender, which Evaristo demonstrates is far broader than we may think.
Woolf, in her 1938 follow up essay to A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas, argued that women ought to remove themselves from patriarchal society in order to thrive, “we believe that we can help you most effectively by refusing to join your society; by working for our common ends – justice and equality and liberty for all men and women – outside your society, not within.” Woolf, across her two essays, establishes an important precedent for the validity of a separate Women’s Prize for Fiction. We can celebrate a broad range of female voices, whilst also seeking to elevate those who do not conform to such binary gender labels, in pursuit of a more diverse and accessible industry.
Charlotte Higgins& Caroline Davies, ‘AS Byatt says women who write intellectual books seen as unnatural’, The Guardian, 2010, < https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/aug/20/as-byatt-intellectual-women-strange>.
Cynthia Ozich, ‘Prize or Prejudice’, The New York Times, 2012, < https://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/07/opinion/prize-or-prejudice.html>.