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Pale, Stale and Male: Literary Prizes and the Battle for Gender Equality

16/09/2013 16:44 | Updated 16 November 2013

It looks like bookish feminists are winning the war on the pale, stale and male literary establishment.

Last week it was announced that the Man Booker Prize shortlist is two third women and 50% women of colour. Women make up 50% of the Dylan Thomas and Desmond Elliot prizes (both for first time writers), over 50% of the Not the Booker Prize, 100% of the Bailey's prize (maybe not so much of an achievement). All the 2013 longlists seem to be paving the way for real equality in 2014.

As lovely as it is to look at these figures and feel hopeful that maybe women are getting equal recognition, there's one thing stopping me from celebrating; literary prizes are standing on their own. Women writers are still not getting reviewed. While prizes are making room for women the media is not following suit.

This shouldn't matter, print is dead, long live pixels, we are now a nation of book bloggers, etc. The reason it does matter is that until the mainstream media start acknowledging female writers, women will continue to be seen as second-class.

An increase in book bloggers has seen the creation of more supportive platforms and communities for women writers. But as readers we are overwhelmed with recommendations and a good review from an established beast like the Times Literary Supplement continues to carry weight.

Things will change; as demonstrated by TLS editor Peter Stothard's tear-streaked protestations against book bloggers and the death of the literary critic on last week's Woman's Hour. Unfortunately they're not changing fast enough and we need to examine why literary prizes are pulling ahead while reviewers drag their feet.

So why are literary prizes getting it right?

Part of the reason is that literary prizes are easier to monitor - it's much less time consuming to cast an eye over a long list than to count up every issue of the London Review of Books; and they're made up of a diverse collection of people.

With a diverse committee, or readers votes in the case of the Not the Booker, comes a diverse longlist. The other reason is that they are transient. Committee member and tastes come and go, this year women have equality, next year it might be one per longlist.

It is, however, incredibly heartening that none of the prizes mentioned above have used quotas to get their numbers up. Liz Thompson from the Desmond Elliot judging panel is quick to shrug off the suggestion; "I can honestly say the Elliott is entirely gender-blind...We've never discussed quotas (I imagine we'd all be opposed), only the quality of the books".

Sam Jordison, from Not the Booker Prize, is also opposed to the suggestion that quotas were involved and articulates the precarious position women still hold; "Quite a lot of it [more women on longlists] is probably due to luck".

And where are the rest of them going wrong?

Turning the same spotlight on literary publications reveals a few uncomfortable facts; instead of diversity they are largely staffed by the same people. Privileged people, publicly educated, Oxbridge graduates who, in a well recognised phenomenon, like surrounding themselves with familiar faces. (For details of the more sinister side effects of this follow #allwhiteedboard and @WritersofColour) Women writers are left out in the cold due to the laziness and personal prejudices of the editorial team.

The question here is who the recognised experts are. Thompson; "Reviewers talk about "muscular" fiction and the implication is that such fiction is always by men." In the recent Woman's Hour special on women in publishing Alex Clark, TLS reviewer and journalist, asked "where do we locate the voice of authority? Critics have traditionally been drawn from a similar educational, class, racial and gender background".

Recently the disgruntled author Kathryn Heyman cancelled her subscription to the LRB; stating that she was sick of playing "Guess the Ladies" over the authors they covered and the reviewers covering them.

The LRB response was to say that it's "difficult" to find female reviewers or authors to cover. This indicates a lethal combination of laziness and snobbery and, combined with the Stothard's verbal flailing over "experts", presents a closed industry that's in no hurry to relocate the voice of authority.

Literary prizes are pulling ahead but what's clear is that the media won't be joining them any time soon. If women's writing is not valued or recognised by the literary establishment, then neither are women. We can't afford to wait for literary magazines to catch up with the prizes because they don't want to, they can't be bothered. They're happier missing out on the best to maintain their commitment to male authors.

It's this snobby laziness that makes me feel uneasy. Yes women writers are doing well on the shortlists but they're still not welcome in the rest of the literary world. Stothard et al are desperately holding onto their privelege and it's up to organisations like For Books' Sake, Media Diversity UK and Vida to wrestles it from their sweaty, panic-streaked hands.