Novelist Susan Swan, likely disappointed at not getting the nominations her new novel The Western Light deserved during this season’s round of Canadian book prize short and long lists, has allowed herself to become the spokesperson for Thomas Allen & Sons editorial director and amateur statistician Janice Zawerbny at the Vancouver Writers Festival in proposing yet another book prize. As far as I can figure out, it be will an award to be given to female fiction writers who don’t get nominated for other book prizes, and named after, depending on your preference, cheated-for-recognition British DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin, or one of Shakespeare’s many cross-dressing characters. Presumably, Ms. Zawerbny will be its administrator.
The fissionable materials for all this, so the story goes, came together in Ms Zawerbny’s mind during a panel discussion at the festival between Swan and several other women including, I think, the administrator of Britain’s Orange Prize, and thus a woman predisposed to thinking that improved marketing is the answer to every ill. The trigger appears to have been some, er, selected facts about the male-female ratios of selected book prize winners and shortlisted authors, and further near-facts about the gender of reviewers and reviews in this and other countries during an unspecified but presumably also selected period. That narrative, leadered by a photo of Zawerbny looking sincerely aggrieved in a spaniel-faced sort of way, can be found here :
There are several problems with the proposal, beginning with the selection of “facts” and their interpretation. Within Canada, for instance, the statistics are considerably less prejudicial: For the fiction GG, for instance, since 1994 51 women and 46 men have been nominated, with six women winning and 12 men. The ratio of female to male jurors has been 27-29. For the Giller Prize, since it’s inception, 46 women have been shortlisted, and 48 men, with 7 women (including the last two) and 11 men winning. 24 women have juried the prize, 30 men, with improved ratios over recent years. The Writer’s Trust prize for fiction since 1997 has 7 women winning, 8 men, with the shortlist ratio 35-41. Interestingly, the jurors for the prize have consisted of 31 females and just 17 males–a ratio of 2-1 in every year but 1998.
If one parses these statistics carefully, it becomes clear that in Canada the imbalances are less than egregious, and that over the past half-dozen years, there’s no imbalance at all.
The issue of gender-based reviewing of books is muddier yet. I’m not sure where the reviewing statistics offered during the panel came from, but I can see several things wrong with them. First off, they appear to be both anecdotal and selective. Second, they’re a little like searching for sectarian factoids between the toes of an 800 pound gorilla.
The gorilla is the woeful diminution of reviewing that has occurred in this country over the past decade or so. This has seen a diminution in the number of books reviewed, a reduction in the average length of the reviews, a vast drop in the number of readers the reviews get to, along with a decimation in the number and denominational background of venues available for reviewing. Every newspaper in the country has either radically reduced their book pages if they haven’t dumped them altogether, at least one newspaper chain has been stringing the few reviews they do publish across the chain, and dedicated book reviewers—male or female—have ceased to exist. Several prominent review magazines have gone out of business or gone digital, and there is evidence that the newspapers who continue to review books weight their selection of reviews toward publishers who can afford to run ads. These are real cultural problems. I’m not sure that gender-licencing reviewers will solve any problem at all, given that the true source of the mess we have is the marketization of culture.
Then there’s the question of whether yet another book prize will solve the problem it sets out to address, or whether it will simply make a bad situation worse. It’s already an acknowledged practice for the marketing and publicity apparatuses of book publishers to abandon any book that doesn’t make it onto the shortlist of the book prizes (that Ms Swan’s current publisher clearly hasn’t done this seems to have eluded her). One could argue, I suppose, that the best response to the orphaning of non short-listed works of fiction is to increase the number of prizes to the point where virtually every book published will be nominated for one prize or another. But such a strategy will ultimately be self-defeating—or it will turn book-publishing from a cultural activity into a blood sport for the publicity machines the publishers can mount (Canada Reads gone completely mad, in other words)—and will no doubt redirect their energies still further from editing to marketing. Personally, I’m not sure how much I’d value winning the Jeff Chandler Fiction Prize for older, grey-haired blue-eyed guys with attitude problems, should the category bifurcations reach that level of absurdity.
The Rosalind prize, meanwhile, seems like a slue-footed step in that direction, and an attempt to create yet another aggrieved faction where fewer factions are the best solution. Ms. Zawerbny herself seems to have conveniently overlooked the fact that she picked the Thomas Allen books submitted to the prizes, and that the two shortlisted books that came from Thomas Allen were both written by male writers. She has also overlooked the fact that there are already prizes for female writers in Canada—The Marion Engel (now combined with the Tim Finley prize and since 2007, no longer gender-determined) and Pat Lowther prizes. These prizes have been around for decades, and seem (by her terms, at least) to have had little impact.
Another new prize, it seems to me, will just suck more money and energy into prize culture when it could be going to editorial, or (just as important) into educating a new generation of readers. And in that zone, there are lots of things that could be done: train high school teachers to teach contemporary Canadian work; make that work available to classrooms at reduced cost; bring writers into classrooms; host literary events that move outside of already overworked contemporary reading audiences; give prizes to critical writing as well as creative; facilitate discussions, etc. We could even train young writers to facilitate discussions, emphasize conversation instead of sucking up to the marketplace.
This is work that was originally the mandate of the Writers Trust, and work that is currently done quite ably in the UK by the Book Trust. It isn’t being done in Canada at all, because the Writers Trust, with it’s cumbersome corporate dominated board, is obsessed(surprise!) with book prizes and cocktail parties.
If we have to give out prizes, it would be more productive to put more emphasis on lifetime achievement, longevity and less on the marketing novelty of first books, which has already saddled us with the ignominy of having an MA thesis in Creative Writing win the Giller Prize. We need to move away from thinking of writing as a lottery, and thus crafting everything toward grants and prizes. We should be treating writing as an integral part of our cultural conversation, however unfashionable that has become. Literature is going to disappear unless we start trying to increase the number of readers and improve the level of discourse around literature.
Either way, marketizing the situation further isn’t going to help, and that, along with promoting gender warfare, seems to be all Zawerbny (and Swan, hopefully temporarily) can imagine.