Women's literary prizes are 'problematic' says Lionel Shriver

Women's literary prizes are 'problematic' says Lionel Shriver

Author Lionel Shriver has said literary prizes just for women are "problematic", while calling International Women's Day "creepy" at an event to mark the occasion.

The 2005 Orange Prize winner also said it would be more "meaningful" for her to win the Man Booker Prize than the Women's Prize for Fiction.

Speaking as part of a panel discussion on 'What Sex is Your Bookshelf', hosted by the Man Booker Prize in London to mark International Women's Day, Shriver also rubbished author Kamila Shamsie's suggestion there should be 'Year of Publishing Women' in 2018 to promote female authors.

The panel discussion, chaired by Economist books and arts editor Fiammetta Rocco, also administrator for the Man Booker prize, was largely attended by women from the male-dominated financial industry and featured the We Need to Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail) author Shriver, novelist and critic Anthony Quinn and Professor of American Literature at the University of London Sarah Churchwell.

Shriver said Shamsie's challenge to publishers to only publish books by women in 2018, the centenary year for women getting the vote, was "rubbish".

She said: "It's rubbish. I think that's really all it deserves. This whole thing of treating women specially, as if they need special help and special rules, is problematic and obviously backfires. It is the big downside to the Orange Prize. Having won it, I never want to seem ungrateful, and I don't bad mouth the Orange Prize. Kate Mosse who runs it is very approachable on how the prize has its problematic side. But I would still feel perfectly comfortable saying it is not as meaningful to me to have won the Orange Prize as say it would have been to win the Booker. Most people who win that prize surely say the same thing: you have eliminated half the human race from applying. ...I took the money! But there is this problem of suggesting that we need help, that men have to leave the room and then we're prize worthy. The idea of only publishing women is the same thing."

Churchwell said she disagreed with Shriver about International Women’s Day and the Baileys Prize. “I believe both are necessary because we have not yet achieved equality. When we do achieve equality then it will be nice to have a world in which those are not necessary,” she told the Guardian.

At the event, Churchwell said that “equality is precisely the fight for not having special treatment – even if that special treatment is couched as, as it is with women, preferential treatment", but said “you can’t win by pretending gender isn’t a problem, either. You just get back into a state where it’s invisible and what women think and experience gets lost all over again.”

There have been mixed views to Shamsie's response to gender bias oversights within the industry.

One of the reasons behind Shamsie's proposal, however, are statistics showing men are more likely to be asked to judge literary prize panels, and men in turn are more likely to recommend "yet more men", resulting in a "triple bind", according to Shamsie. 

The tendency for men to prefer reading books by men is something that author Anthony Quinn agreed with. He said: "There is a fundamental problem men don't want to read books by women."

Talking about the challenges and benefits of writing a character in the opposite gender, he said: "It's completely opened up my writing". Meanwhile Shriver added: "I don't find writing as male and female characters a very different experience. The secret is there is no secret. The mistake would be thinking yourself into a male characters mind is any different than being in your own head. The differences that are going to matter have nothing to do with what's in your pants," she said. "I think this comes from the fact I don't think of myself or feel in myself a particular gender. To me my experience is not as a woman it's in relation to other people."

She went on to say there was something "very creepy" about International Women's Day in itself, the implication being every other day is Men's Day.

"Although I agree there are risks here, I would like to see a world in my lifetime where International Women's Day is not necessary, where the Orange prize is not necessary. I am not convinced that we are there yet."

Shriver won the Women's Prize for Fiction, (formerly called the Orange Prize for Fiction) for We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2005. This year's longlist for the prize was released yesterday (8th March).

"Persistent gender bias" is even manifesting itself in school textbooks and having an adverse effect on girls' education, according to UNESCO. A report recently published said textbooks were portaying women as "accomodating, nurturing drudges" and girls as "passive conformists", particularly in maths and science. Manos Antoninis, from Unesco's global education monitoring report told the BBC it was "sapping girls' motivation, self-esteem and participation in school". 

UNESCO is inviting members of the public to send in examples of sexist sterotyping they see in textbooks, using the Twitter hashtag #BetweentheLines.

Picture: © Sarah Lee