Are The Top Literary Awards Gender Skewed?

The winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018 will be announced this month. A few weeks back, when the shortlist was announced, several media reports celebrated the fact that women authors formed a majority on that list.

News reports with headlines such as ‘Women Writers Dominate 2018 Man Booker Prize Shortlist’ and ‘Anna Burns, Esi Edugyan Among Four Women Shortlisted For Man Booker 2018’ did the rounds on the Internet, and for a moment, there was a glimmer of happiness that finally, one of the top literary prizes of the world, is giving female writers their due, acknowledging their accomplishments and celebrating their narratives.

However — what I hate to point out is — this isn’t the first time in the history of Booker prize that this has happened, and perhaps there is no reason to celebrate, not yet anyway. Women had been redefining literary styles, and choosing bold, original themes even in 1969 — when the literary award started — and had not only often featured on the shortlists, but in some years dominated it as well. In 1969, three men and three women, writers were shortlisted for the prize, with PH Newby taking the prize home. The very next year — much like 2018 — out of the six shortlisted authors, four were female with Bernice Rubens winning the top literary prize.

There are many other shortlists from different years that tell a heartening story of gender inclusivity, but take a step back, and look at the complete list of winners over the years, and you will be painfully reminded of how skewed the gender representation is when it comes to Man Booker Prize. While there are many who are shortlisted, there are few who make it to the winners’ list. Till now only 16 women have won the prize which is almost half of the total number of male winners – 31.

According to an IBM report published earlier this year, the literary prize is said to have a deep-rooted history of gender bias.

A Quartz article says that the IBM research was conducted using artificial intelligence to search for gender bias in 275 works of literature shortlisted over the last 50 years of the history of Man Booker Prize and it was found that in majority of these works male characters played pivotal roles, and therefore found more mentions, while, over time female characters were mentioned 50% less than men. The research also found that strong female characters are mostly written by women authors (no shocker there).

While Man Booker Prize has often been condemned (and rightfully so) for its sexist past, it isn’t the only literary award to discriminate against women. Out of 114 individuals who have won Nobel Prizes from Literature, only 14 were women.

Closer home, Sahitya Akademi Award, one of the top literary awards of India, has also been accused of biased gender representation.

According to a research article published in Economic and Political Weekly, by Suraj Jacob, and Vanamala Viswanatha, “The distribution of Sahitya Akademi Awards shows the fairly predictable pattern of gender gaps. Starting from 1955, and across two dozen languages, less than one-tenth of all awards have gone to women.”

This paper which was published in 2018 also found that the low representation of women in Sahitya Akademi Award is actually consistent with other awards. “The figure for the Jnanpith Award, for instance, is not much better (13%).” the paper stated. A quick google search will tell you that the story is the same for other literary awards as well. The popular Crossword Book Award has been awarded to twice as many men as women. Only one woman has won The Hindu Prize, only two women have won The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Another thing that is problematic is also the weak female representation in the juries of these literary awards. There are, for example, very few members of the Sahitya Akademi Council who are women.

From the President to the Advisory Council of Sahitya Akademi, it’s a male-dominated arena. One of the few women in the Sahitya Akademi board, who is the convener of English Board of Sahitya Akademi, and a member of the General Council, Professor Sanjukta Dasgupta, said that there is no exclusivist idea that women have to be deliberately left out, but there is a clear lack of gender sensitivity in the entire system.

“I don’t think gender is taken into consideration while jury selection till people meet around the table and realize that it is very male-dominated. But, it isn’t something that happens with a lot of pre-meditated design” said Professor Dasgupta.

Dasgupta also added, “Gender sensitivity should be there. When the names are being decided there should be a gender balance, but what really happens is, the names come in, and immediately people say yes or no, irrespective of their gender.” The English Board of Sahitya Akademi has the maximum number of women, while there are few women in other regional boards.

Talking about gender bias in literary awards, Meghna Pant, the co-author of Feminist Rani, and writer of One and A Half Wife, said, “Just as provenance is irrelevant in decision-making, gender should be as well. Merit does not rest in someone’s genitals but in their talent. Therefore, for every Aravind Adiga who has won the Man Booker, there’s an Arundhati Roy. For every Salman Rushdie, there’s a Kiran Desai. Yet, it must be pointed out, that twice as many men have won the Booker as compared to women. Whether by chance or design, if this is not indicative of underlying gender biases, then what is?”

Pant said that almost all award-winning books feature male protagonists and/or are authored by men. Even “best writers” lists feature almost all men, along with the same two-three token women, she added. “In fact, whenever I’m mentioned among the best Indian writers, there’s always ‘female’ put before this ‘honor,’ because apparently, my most visible identity is also my most defining identity. The gender in power gets the noun while the other gender gets the adjective. It’s pitiful, and I hope things change soon.” concluded Pant.

Shaili Chopra, the founder of SheThePeople and co-author of Feminist Rani, shared her experience of starting Women Writer’s Festival — a platform which celebrates literary works of women, and firebrand women authors. The literary festival has already completed ten editions.

“One of the things that the Women Writer’s Festival have wanted to do and now I sort of feel a bit vindicated that despite the early criticism we have managed to do that is to provide a platform for female writers who have had a higher share of struggles. I feel they need more support and solidarity, which is why women writers need more attention and spotlight.”

Chopra, who has written the book The Big Connect: Politics in the Age of Social Media, pointed out that is also a false perception that women write only Kitchen literature, or romance, things one read during travels, or for leisure. “It is good to see that there is increased attention by all the literary prizes to understand that women writing is not a genre, but their writings transcend into all genres… they don’t necessarily write on subjects that are women-centric…most of the existing literary awards, have the legacy that any part of our societies have, so in that sense it will be accurate to criticize them for not having made an effort or taken the initiative to go out and find female authors and writers, and recognize that their work is as good as others.”

Apart from literary awards, a paradox that has increasingly become apparent about the Indian publishing industry is that despite many women working in the sector, it has not substantially helped women authors to get their spotlights.

Deepa Agarwal, author of books like Sacked! Folk Tales You Can Carry Around, and Caravan To Tibet pointed out that, “If you consider the number of women in the industry–from authors, translators, illustrators, designers and editors to publishers and sales and marketing professionals it’s more than inclusive. I would go so far as to say that if not dominate, women more than hold their own in the book industry.”

However, Agarwal added, “This, however, does not necessarily mean that the scales are weighted in favor of women writers.”

Inclusivity for women authors is a factor of many things, especially in a country like India, where her gender identity has to be viewed within the framework of several of her other identities such as caste, economic background, regionality as well as language. If it is hard for example, for a female writer, who writes in English and is from an urban middle or upper-class background to get attention of the public as well as be noticed by members of literary award juries, one can only imagine, how much harder it must be for a Dalit or tribal woman writer, writing in a regional language to get noticed.

While these women still strive to write and express themselves, the onus is as much on the publishing industry as well as on literary awards to make their voices heard. It’s not going to happen in a year or two years, but that lopsided gender balance has to be made even, in India as well as across the world, and while the media has already started viewing literature through the gender lens (at least a cross-section of media) and have started noticing gender representation, it is definitely time, for those people who represent the hallowed literary prizes to take that into consideration as well.

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