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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Martha Gill

Female novelists don’t need their own prizes. Let’s abolish them

Barbara Kingsolver holds up her ‘Bessie” statuette.
Barbara Kingsolver, author of Demon Copperhead, was awarded the Women's Prize for Fiction on 14 June 2023. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

There is a point at which all special treatment becomes patronising. And we have reached that point, I think, when it comes to giving women a leg-up in the business of writing fiction.

Genghis Khan sacked and plundered his way through central Asia in just 20 years; women have conquered the literary world with similar thoroughness and in the same time frame. They dominate – the empire is theirs. Do we really still need a Women’s prize for fiction? These days you might as well ask if we need a men’s prize for chess.

It wasn’t always so. When the prize was founded, in 1996, female writers still suffered a good deal of discrimination. In 1991, the Booker prize had an all-male shortlist, and when in 1983 Granta published its first Best of Young British Novelists list there were only six women among 20.

The impression one gets of the scene back then is a boys’ club, hazy with cigar smoke and littered with discarded wives – and if male writers acknowledged the problem it was usually to muse on the psychological defects that might be holding their female colleagues back. Was it that they couldn’t write well, or didn’t want to, perhaps for evolutionary reasons?

But things have changed more quickly than possibly anyone could have anticipated. Now it seems entirely natural that the debut authors attracting the excitement and attention are all women – this year Granta’s list of new novelists to watch contained just five men. A male Sally Rooney? The powers in publishing are finding the idea harder and harder to imagine.

The inequality doesn’t just concern debut authors, either – it’s everywhere. Books with female authors sell more on average, and the bestselling ones sell better. The New York Timestop 15 fiction bestsellers currently feature 12 books written by women. Women buy 80% of all novels, and in the publishing industry they outnumber men by two to one.

Even so, is there a feminist case for keeping the Women’s prize (won last week by Barbara Kingsolver)? After all, most professions in Britain are still male dominated – the literary world is an exception, an Asterix village holding out against Roman-occupied Gaul. And of course fiction writing was mostly male until relatively recently – it has only just tipped the other way. In 2011, VS Naipaul was asked if he considered any woman writer his equal, to which he replied: “I don’t think so.” He could “read a piece of writing”, he said, “and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not”. Given all this, shouldn’t we keep the prize, its champions say, just to stamp the victory more thoroughly into place?

No. The most feminist course of action is to drop the prize. Affirmative action has its merits; all-female shortlists and special prizes can be a useful shortcut to equality. (No doubt the Women’s prize – formerly the Orange prize – had a role in the female transformation of fiction.) But it is easy to forget affirmative action comes with costs, too.

The costs are rather obvious. It is disheartening to feel that you’ve achieved something on the basis of your identity rather than on merit. When well-meaning companies trumpet their diversity policies, or talk about how they “particularly wanted a female CEO this time”, they are directly undermining their female or minority employees. The white men are there because they deserved to be, they are saying – the rest of you are being terribly helpful to us in ticking this box. And while it is useful to be able to describe a group as oppressed or victimised (how else can you begin to address the problem?), it can also be an assault on their dignity. A victim is there to be pitied and helped. Moral agency, the decision to help or not, lies with others – who get all the praise.

Tokenism puts the category first. This can mean all get treated alike, regardless of ability – one female representative will do as well as another. Those with overt quotas to fill, such as on TV panels, have been accused by feminists of plonking inexperienced women into places that could be occupied by someone more qualified.

So are special prizes and shortlists good or bad? It depends entirely on timing. How far have women progressed? Do the costs now outweigh the benefits? In some arenas, such as sport, women’s categories will always be necessary, but elsewhere it varies.

Labour’s all-women shortlists for new MPs were a very good idea that became a bad one as female representation equalised. The shortlists were duly retired. The Brit awards, on the other hand, scrapped their female-only award too soon. The industry wasn’t ready: it was still misogynistic. Without the protective category, women were entirely left out of the nominees for best artist.

Feminist ideas or endeavours are often assessed as if they are essentially positive or negative – but, the truth is, they go in and out of date. A good illustration can be found in female cultural tropes. Take the “strong female character” – the sort of stoic, violent, karate-loving women who dominated films and TV in the early 00s. This stereotype is now acknowledged to be sexist: it is too restrictive. But these characters were once assuredly feminist, a rejoinder to an older TV stereotype of women as messy ditzes who needed to be rescued.

There is a risk in clinging to the idea that female fiction writers are still somehow oppressed – or to hazard, as some have, that the men have simply moved instead to more lucrative endeavours, leaving women as the losers, again. Women should, as they say, take the win. They should be holding anguished debates as to the evolutionary roots of male failure in novel writing. They should be dedicating their prizes, in the manner of Harry Styles at the Brits, to “male writers everywhere”.

It is time to stamp female authority even more thoroughly on the literary world – and retire the Women’s prize.

• Martha Gill is an Observer columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at

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