The Women’s Prize for Fiction (and all its sexist connotations)

Tomorrow, the Women’s Prize for Fiction will announce the winner of their ‘Bessie’ award and a sweet £30,000 prize.  The winner, as suggested by the award title, will be a woman.  Folks with dangly bits between their legs need not apply.

I am a woman.

I believe in equality.

This award makes me uneasy.

Imagine, for a moment, if the shoe was on the other foot.

“If you’ve got no balls (of the fleshy, not the steel, variety), don’t bother us”.  If there was an award for which only men could be nominated (or only white people, or only people under the age of 30), there would be uproar.  Discrimination on such a massive scale would simply not be allowed, so why is the Women’s Prize for Fiction not treated in the same way?  Discrimination is discrimination, regardless of where you direct it.  

Poor Women, Never the Winner 

I’ve heard it argued that women have a hard time in publishing; that they can’t reach the top of their profession and that men dominate best seller lists.  Someone once told me that we need awards directed solely at women because men are in control of the other literary prizes, and women never win.  So is the Women’s Prize for Fiction a consolation prize – an award for those not good enough to compete against nominees of other literary prizes?

The trouble is, if women don’t win literary prizes aimed at both genders, it’s

144/365 Tome
144/365 Tome (Photo credit: t0msk)

not because they are women, but because their books aren’t good enough.  It’s because that year, a man wrote a better book.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Just because a man did better one year, doesn’t mean women did bad or that they won’t win next year – it just means that this year, they didn’t quite make it.  Like all prizes, there are losers.  Suck it up!

The thing is though, it’s simply not true.  Women are actually flourishing within the publishing world.  Women’s Fiction and Chick-Lit are more popular than ever and women grace the best seller tables regularly.  What’s more, women do not have a hard time winning literary awards.  Four out of the last eight Man Booker Prizes have been awarded to women; two of which were won by Hilary Mantel – one of the women authors short-listed for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction.

In fact, of all the authors short-listed for this prize, not one is a writer who is struggling to succeed in man’s world.


Hilary Mantel: CBE and winner of two Man Booker Prizes (one of which is for the very book that is short-listed here)

Barbara Kingsolver: Best seller, winner of New York Times Best Books of the Year and other prizes.

Kate Atkinson: MBE and winner of Costa Book of the Year, among others.

A M Homes: Nominated for Lambda Literary Award for Children’s/Young Adult.

Zadie Smith: Winner of Guardian First Book Award, Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award, and more.

Maria Semple: TV credentials include Beverly Hills, Mad About You, Arrested Development, Suddenly Susan, Ellen.

A bunch of under-achievers?  It seems not.  

Bad News for Feminism

The thing is, sexist awards like this one aren’t just harmful to men.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they aren’t harmful to men at all.  They are actually harmful to women and our long, hard fight for equality.

It’s said that we should celebrate strong women but I don’t believe in celebrating strong women.  I believe in celebrating strong people.  In a truly equal society, gender wouldn’t even grace a thought, let alone be the basis of a literary prize.  Creating an award for women because they (apparently) can’t compete in the market is far from celebrating them.  Instead, it’s humouring them, patronising them.  It’s patting them on the head and saying ‘there, there, ignore the big nasty boys, you can have a prize too’.  It’s encouraging the idea that women need an award of their own, because they are somehow weaker and unable to compete.  But that’s not true.

strong_womanSo let’s start celebrating people.  If, as a woman, you want to win a literary award, write a book worthy of winning over all books.  The battle for equal rights should focus on bringing us together, as equals on an equal playing field, instead of on separation and segregation.  And the truth is that Mantel et al., are strong women, but they are also strong enough to hold their own in a world that includes everyone, dangly bits and all.


  1. The reason the Women’s Prize for Fiction was launched was because there were no women at all on the Booker Prize shortlist in 1991. Yes, the women shortlisted this year all have successful careers but the literary scene wasn’t always so balanced – maybe this shows that actually the Prize has helped changed things? Mantel is very successful but it is only in the last three years that people have really taken notice of her work despite her very long career.

    1. I didn’t know the facts but I guessed it had arisen out of some sort of unbalance. There was unbalance, of course there was, but I don’t believe that there is any more. Perhaps you are right, perhaps it has helped to change things but I’m not so sure.

      I still believe that having a seperate award for women is more damaging to women than otherwise – we need to be empowered and believe that we can compete, not patronised with a prize of our own. We should fight against the unbalance, not accept it and even add to it by segregating ourselves even further.

      As for Mantel’s long career. success like hers is not the norm. Many authors (male and female) go their whole careers without such distinction, so Mantel having to wait a little isn’t such a bad thing. I don’t believe that the struggle to be noticed has got anything to do with gender, but is a truth of industry in general.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with this article. It applies to all areas. Why aren’t people arguing for the rights of all humans as opposed to picking some group or minority and promote their rights only? I was schooled by a university lecturer for not being a feminist. He did not ask my why… I would have told him that if my view must be labelled then I am a humanist.

    1. It’s crazy. I don’t understand why we’ve got to create segregation in any part of life, or why gender even matters when it comes to reviewing literature and books. A good book is a good book, regardless of who wrote it!

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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