Literary prizes have become so universal that it makes one wonder how writers ever survived without them. They’re judged by many different organisations and literary figures with varying experience, and there is a malicious undercurrent of social elite holding power, control, and authority. Conflict theorists would argue that any writer who is not heterosexual, Caucasian, middle class, cisgender, or male are disproportionately overlooked. This theory helps to explain the inherent classism, elitism, sexism, and marginalisation of the lower class and lower brow in the literary prize world.
Yardley (2015, pg. 1) argues that literary prizes should be used to recognise the significance of a work at a particular cultural moment. They were designed to do something crucial: award prizes for works of art. O’Connell (2011, pg.1) surmises that for many readers, literary prizes afford confidence and act as a “reliable indicator of quality.” Prizes are important for literature, and channel readerly attention. They are a precious resource, allowing said books to be read, discussed, and added to syllabi—to become part of our literary consciousness.
Literary prizes get people talking about books, buying them, and reading them, but there is a fundamental disparity inherent in literary prize culture. Thousands of writers pay entry fees for a prize only a few winners end up benefitting from per year. Writing competitions are literary lotteries, and if you’re a poet of colour in this country, “you probably have a better chance with the pokies” (Sakr, 2015, pg. 2). There is an undercurrent of classist, elitist notions inferring that “If you can afford to join us, you are welcome. If not, this conversation (about literature) is not for you” (Marsden, 2018, pg.12). Literary prizes don’t support equity at the moment, least of all gender equity.
This disparity shouldn’t still exist in contemporary society. Aggregate website Goodreads.com lists over six thousand literary prizes. Six thousand prizes, and still not enough room for women to catch a break. Literary prizes let an author know their work matters, and “by their very nature, prizes make champions of the few, and leave the disappointed many covetous” (Clarke, 2015, pg. 3).
“Women are horribly under-represented in the world’s top literary awards. Prizes show us, quite clearly, whose work we value and whose we don’t. Since the 1970s, the literary canon has been critiqued by academics and writers who observed that it tended to include only the work of white, middle-class, heterosexual men.”
(Kon-Yu, 2019, pg. 4)
Kean (2018, pg. 13) reminds us that the concept isn’t new: “Women are used to living off scraps that fall from the table… we have learned to take any crumb of grudging appreciation.” Equity is still being demanded by those who have had a marginalised voice in literary prize culture from the beginning.
“If we cannot fathom the idea that women can be interesting, complex and worthy of serious contemplation in those books we cite as the best in our culture, then we continue to cast women as marginal and inconsequential.”
(Kon-Yu, 2019, pg. 6)
Recently, Irish author Marian Keyes accused the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction of sexism. This was after failing to be shortlisted in the award’s 18-year history. Her books sold over 35 million copies and have been translated into 33 languages. Surely this is justification enough for at least a shortlisting. She argues that there is a “sexist imbalance” (Byrne, 2018, pg. 12) inherent in the prize. Even though it’s been running since 2000, the prize judges decided to withhold the award this year, failing to find a book worthy. It has been awarded to just 3 women in its history. It seems that there is an unconscious, systemic bias.
There are several ways that the literary prize world is still falling short, and there is a wider trend among them that fail to acknowledge female writers as people. As evidenced by controversy surrounding the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018, when the award process was thrown into crisis over claims of physical abuse, misconduct, and sexual harassment. Eighteen women accused the husband of a member of the Swedish Academy of committing such atrocities. The uproar engulfed the prize body, “calling on the academy to make ethics a priority, report and prosecute allegations of misconduct, and fight (the) male abuse of power and degrading treatment of women” (Henley, 2018, pg. 3). The assaults are alleged to have taken place over more than 20 years, and in addition to the allegations, the accused are said to have committed financial malpractice and repeated leaks. As a result of this, the Nobel Prize for Literature was cancelled, and the Swedish Academy reported a need to “commit time to recovering public confidence” (Henley, Flood, 2018, pg. 1).
In 2011, a group of fourth-wave feminists established a major literary prize for Australian women called the Stella, in an effort to remedy sexism in the literary prize world. Named after one of Australia’s iconic female authors, (Stella Maria Sarah ‘Miles’ Franklin), the Stella Prize is a major award celebrating Australian women’s writing, and an organisation that champions cultural change. It was awarded for the first time in 2013. Both nonfiction and fiction books by Australian women are eligible for entry. The organisers and founders aim to recognise and celebrate Australian women writers’ contribution to literature, while bringing more readers to books by women, thus increasing sales. The organisation also aims to equip young readers with the skills to question gender disparities, challenge stereotypes, and help girls find their voice. The reward is $50,000—money that buys a writer some measure of financial independence.
To mandate change and curb the unconscious bias and gender stereotyping (that still proves hard to dismantle) these women pushed toward the notion that women are writers too. By creating this award, one of the most important problems to face the literary prize world (namely a failure to recognise literary work by women in Australia) was slowly nodding towards resolution. The Stella did for female Australian writers what we now need to do for writers of all marginalised groups in the shift for intersectionality. Why isn’t there an Australian prize for LGBTQIA+ writing? There are so many conversations that Australian literature has not even started to have.
“Given their exclusion from the canon, it is no surprise that women, writers of color, working-class writers and non-heterosexual or non-cis writers do not win prestigious prizes as often as they should.”
(Kon-Yu, 2016, pg. 5)
Fundamentally, “the barriers to equality are invisible and insidious” (Tuffield, 2018, pg. 1). Female writers are underrepresented as winners of literary prizes, as authors of books that receive predominant review and media coverage, and authors of books in the school curriculum. In an ideal literary prize climate, no genre is disadvantaged, and there is always a diverse judging panel. Idealistically, prizes should acknowledge where privilege or bias exists and interrogate it (Clarke, 2015, pg. 3). If we care about quality and the cutting-edge, a more level playing field must be established. Unfortunately, in our present day, prizes are voted on by the social elite and class dominance exists to cut out those who do not fit the classification of heterosexual, white, middle class, cisgender, male writer. Diverse voices and experiences need to be heard “…if literary culture is ever going to become less elitist, less hierarchical, less patriarchal, less complicit in oppressive structures of race and class and gender.” (Tranter, 2019, pg. 4)
“I believe it is part of the task of those who have known exclusion, discrimination, and inequality to be advocates for inclusion, respect and equality for all. Any experience of injustice should always increase our empathy and push us towards a greater understanding of injustice in other contexts. So, I think women should be advocates for each other, which is why an awareness of privilege is so crucial.”
(Kwaymullina, 2015, pg. 12)
There are numerous barriers to recognition for women in literary prizes; it’s up to readers to be confident and interested enough to seek out marginalised stories. Those who are not heterosexual, Caucasian, middle class, cisgender, male writers need to be recognised with as much valour as those who are, because inherent classism, elitism, sexism, and marginalisation of the lower class/brow in the literary prize world should not be tolerated. One of the first notions of change that need to happen risk the diversification of literary prize criteria and judging panels. Diversity and intersectionality in prize culture leads to a more equitable starting place. The goal is to open minds; to accept new ideas that otherwise mightn’t have flourished. This will, in turn, ensure marginalised communities experience a more diverse literary world, while demonstrating opportunity through investment in diversity. Leaders need to consider bold interventions, as the time to act is now. Without women, the novel would be dead.
Byrne, R. (2018). Marian Keyes attacks ‘sexist imbalance’ of Wodehouse prize. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/04/marian-keyes-attacks-sexist-imbalance-of-wodehouse-prize
Clarke, M. (2015). So many very hungry writers. Overland. https://overland.org.au/2015/09/so-many-very-hungry-writers/
Henley, J. (2018). Sexual abuse scandal engulfs Nobel literature prize body. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/12/sara-danius-resigns-swedish-academy-nobel-prizes
Henley, J., & Flood, A. (2018). Nobel prize in literature 2018 cancelled after sexual assault scandal. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/04/nobel-prize-for-literature-2018-cancelled-after-sexual-assault-scandal
Kean, D. (2018). The books world is sexist – and a one day promotion isn’t enough to fix it. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2018/mar/08/sales-promotion-gender-inequality-books-international-womens-day
Kon-yu, N. (2019). On Sexism in Literary Prize Culture. Overland Magazine. https://lithub.com/on-sexism-in-literary-prize-culture/
Kwaymullina, A. (2015). On diversity, intersectionality and the future. The Stella Prize. https://thestellaprize.com.au/2015/10/diversity-intersectionality-future/
O’Connell, M. (2011). Why We Care About Literary Awards. The Reading Ape. http://thereadingape.blogspot.com/2011/08/why-we-care-about-literary-awards.html
Sakr, O. (2015). Putting Quarters in a Broken Machine: on the merit of literary prizes in Australia. Wheeler Centre. https://www.wheelercentre.com/notes/putting-quarters-in-a-broken-machine-literary-prizes-in-australiaTranter, K. (2019). An inherently stupid prize of our own? Overland. https://overland.org.au/2019/08/an-inherently-stupid-prize-of-our-own/
Tuffield, A. (2018). What difference can a book prize for woman make? Lots, actually. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/what-difference-can-a-book-prize-for-woman-make-lots-actually-20180411-p4z90l.html
Yardley, F. (2015). The cult of complaint. Overland. https://overland.org.au/2015/09/the-cult-of-complaint/
Jes Schefe is a queer, neurodivergent freelance editor who prefers correcting other peoples’ grammar to putting stories on paper. She’s been studying at QUT for way too long and loves playing 90’s rap while she appraises manuscripts. She writes to wipe out mental illness taboos and stigmas, and has been an admin and advocate for the QUT Abilities Collective and the QUT Queer Collective for a few years. Her work can be found on the Loving Her Facebook page, The SPAWN Exhibition, Flunk Magazine, Glass Magazine, and a few others. You can also find her at @jesmassiveattack
Elly-Grace Rinaldis is a model and creative writer located in Brisbane. When she is not backpacking or travelling internationally, Elly-Grace enjoys socialising over a bottle of pinot noir with her friends, family and beloved cat Vera. Elly-Grace is currently studying to complete her Bachelor of Fine Arts majoring in Creative Writing at QUT. Her debut poetry collection titled Five Summers: An Anthology is currently available for purchase on her website www.ellygrace.com.au or locally at Avid Reader in West End. She can be found at @ellygracewrites