Last week the Guardian published a piece on the Stella Prize: ‘Stella prize 2016 announces longlist of 12 books by Australian women‘. For my across-the-waters-friends who may not have heard of it, the Stella Prize celebrates Australian women writers’ contribution to literature and aims to bring more readers to books by women.
What was interesting, other than the tantalising list of books itself, was the article’s comments section. Nothing is more likely to rile commentators than when women point out sexism and then, in particular, have the temerity to try to address it. So I read the comments with my fingers, figuratively, covering my eyes.
Why do we have a sexist literary award in this day and age? Really. Can you imagine the howls if we ever had a male only award! Grow up girls…..what you have between your legs has no relevance to the quality of what goes on between your ears. You should boycott this anachronistic award that belongs to another century.
And then with a bit of cultural chauvinism thrown in:
Shouldn’t it be called the Sheila prize?
Can we, for a moment, place the unnerving tone of these comments to one side and ponder the fundamental complaint. Do they have a point? Is there a need to have women’s only book prizes like the Stella Prize and the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction?
Multiple surveys indicate that women buy and read more than men. Consumerism and capitalism should therefore dictate that women have this market sown up. However, studies continue to highlight that women do not.
Every year, the VIDA Count examines a range of publications (trans-Atlantic) and looks at who is reviewing books and who is being reviewed. In its 2014 count, it found that the majority of publications still had male-dominated literary coverage, both in their use of reviewers and the books that were reviewed. The Times Literary Supplement, for instance, did not fair well. In 2014, only 25 percent of books reviewed in that publication were by women.
Last year,the author Catherine Nichols found that submitting her manuscript under a male pseudonym brought her more than eight times the number of responses she had received under her own name.
Similarly, last year Nicola Griffiths examined the subject of major literary awards and concluded ‘the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women….The literary establishment doesn’t like books about women’. (This year she also analysed data from the film industry: ‘films and TV shows about women do not win prestigious awards. Screen stories about women are not being told’ – but that’s a whole other story!).
You won’t find gynobibliophobia in any on-line dictionary, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist. If women find it harder to get published, to be reviewed or to be the subjects of books, then that suggests that the Stella Prize has some very good reasons to continue to exist. No matter what the punters say.
*’Gynobibliophobia’ was coined by Francine Prose when writing about the uneven ‘literary playing field’. She felt it best summed up by Norman Mailer who she quoted as saying: ‘I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale…. a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls’.