Tim Lott decides women writers don’t need own prize…

// 18 March 2008

LottWhitbread prize winner Tim Lott has said that the Orange Prize for Fiction, the only women-only award, is (wait for it) “discriminatory, sexist and perverse”.

According to Mr Lott women no longer have a tough time in writing and publishing and it is not possible to say that women are a mistreated minority in the literary world:

“Women are predominant, in terms of numbers and power, in most of the major publishing houses and agencies. They sell most of the books, into a market that largely comprises women readers. Girls in schools are more literate than boys, and pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers.”

From The Telegraph

Lets just review that shall we –

Assertion 1 – women are predominant. Which is obviously why in the last 30 years of Nobel Prize for Literature winners only three have been women (Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrisson and Doris Lessing). Or in the Whitbread Prize only six have been (maybe 7, 1998 seems a bit odd on their webpage). Yes a ratio of 1:5 (women:men) means women are obviously in the ascendency.

Assertion 2 – women sell most of the books. Unless he’s are talking about the gendered employment patterns of bookshops, which I doubt, then a brief sweep of the 50 best-selling books of all time tells us that Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Mitchell, J K Rowling (x 7), Jacqueline Susann, Colleen McCullough, Anne Frank, Beatrix Potter, Johanna Spyri all place taking a mere 14 out of 50 (counting J K Rowling’s seven entries separately).

Assertion 3 – Teachers promoting mainly female writers. The Edexcel syllabus lists seven women writers compared to fifteen male writers (or a ratio of roughly 1:2 women to men) across the genres. And students only study one from each of five categories making it perfectly possible they will study no women writers at all.

Seems Mr Lott forgot to do his research….mind he’s in company. A S Byatt, John Sutherland and Anita Brookner have all concurred that the Orange prize is discriminatory and unnecessary.

“Could the establishment of a men-only prize, with men-only judges, be justified given their level of relative exclusion in schools and the marketplace? Can you imagine the derision with which it would rightly be met?”

Actually I’d love to see a men-only prize which rewards innovative writing by men which isn’t derivative or based on comparing willy sizes. I’d stick a tenner in the pit for that…

Comments From You

sian // Posted 18 March 2008 at 12:44 pm


at uni, there was one female written set text for every 3 male written set texts.

we had lectures entitled “women in modernism”; nest to lectures entitled “ts eliot”. can you imagine having a lecture on “men in modernism” or “men in victorian literature”.

chem_fem // Posted 18 March 2008 at 1:23 pm

The prize its self doesn’t matter much to me, but it is a great publiciser of female authored fiction, and I am much more likely to hear about good books written by women when the shortlist is published. As someone who likes reading female authors it is a good thing.

Cara // Posted 18 March 2008 at 1:24 pm


The usual refrain: what about teh menz? Oh my heart bleeds for them.

Jeez, if men don’t read that is due to stereotyped notions of masculinity that say reading is for pansies or something…you know, the kind of thing feminists want to get rid of…same with boys doing less well at school, they think studying is for girlie swots, sigh.

I studied *no* female writers at GCSE. Luckily, my mum had plenty of decent female-authored books at home :-)

Oh and the preponderance of fluffy chick lit, you know, pink books with shoes and shopping bags on the cover…*not* evidence of the preponderance of female writers…most “serious” literature in bookshops is by men.

Oh and I hate it when good, serious writers like Marian Keyes get lumped in with the chick lit when they do actually write about serious issues (drug addiction, bereavement, cancer?) just because they are aimed at women. Grrrr.

vibracobra // Posted 18 March 2008 at 1:31 pm

Actually, I agree with him about it being discriminatory and sexist, it is quite literally discriminatory. I agree for exactly the reasons that Sian disagrees – because male writers get referred to as individuals whereas women are a big block of ‘women writers’.

There is certainly discrimination there, but shoving all female writing together into one category when it’s already often treated as a single genre hardly seems like the answer. Surely, we should be challenging the reasons why the other major prizes are so discriminatory instead.

Or, you know, questioning the money-driven circle-jerk between major publishing houses that most of these prizes are to start with (I don’t mean the Nobel so much, obviously, but a lot of the others definitely).

I agree that there is a place for positive discrimination, but I hardly think extremely privileged writers are in need of it. I mean, J.K. Rowling is one of the richest women in Britain for pete’s sake. So no, I agree with Tim Lott, A.S. Byatt and Germaine Greer on this one.

Nina // Posted 18 March 2008 at 3:59 pm

“shoving all female writing together into one category when it’s already often treated as a single genre hardly seems like the answer”

I’m not sure that anyone should be seeking an answer here, the orange prize promotes female writing, makes it easier to discover new and interesting writers who are women. If anyone is asking it to do anything else than they are asking too much. Vibracobra, I am interested in whether you think you have a better practical solution to making female authors more visible in our society and particularly in UK bookshops? Tim Lott clearly doesn’t think that literature should be judged on gender, well neither do I but I also regard the idea that women and men are equal as naive and that seems to be the basis of his argument. In terms of the social situation that surrounds me a women’s literature prize seems like a good tool for a specific type of cultural promotion.

vibracobra // Posted 18 March 2008 at 5:24 pm

Do I have a better practical solution? Well, I don’t work in publishing or anything, so my expertise in the field is obviously going to be limited.

But in terms of industries, the publishing industry is possibly even bigger, more business-driven and more nepotistic than the music industry, so I think we need to think about that to start with. Even for men it’s hard to get a book deal unless you’ve got the right connections. Of course, for a woman, it’s a lot harder again.

But we’re not talking about a basic civil right here, we’re talking about the right to secure expensive book deals and win industry prizes. How about the ability for less well-known writers to be able to produce and circulate their work without having to get one of those book deals first? I’d like to see more help for those writers, and more possibilities for people of all backgrounds to study academic and creative subjects at university. That’s the level where some positive discrimination might be useful.

Although I see your point too, Nina. And I think one reason for A.S. Byatt and Germaine Greer to be against the Orange Prize is because if either of them won it, it would be bad for their careers. But they do have a point – no one would suggest a special prize for male writers, just as (I’m looking at Sian here) no one would teach a course on ‘men in postmodernist literature’.

I don’t agree with Tim Lott that writing is female-dominated of course, that’s ridiculous.

Ju // Posted 18 March 2008 at 5:35 pm

“I agree that there is a place for positive discrimination, but I hardly think extremely privileged writers are in need of it. I mean, J.K. Rowling is one of the richest women in Britain for pete’s sake.”

Extremely privileged writers? Ha! First of all, Rowling earned her money, and as far as I know, she has pulled her books out of any prizes they’ve been in the running for since she made it big. Second of all, most writers are not very well off. I’d say, although I haven’t seen any stats, women writers would be worse off because as they usually work at home, if they have kids they would probably have to be the primary caregiver, so this would cut productivity.

Any organisation who wants to give women writers some money to help them write their next book is fine by me.

Caitlin // Posted 18 March 2008 at 6:12 pm

It may seem somewhat minor in comparison to many of the ‘gender’ issues in the promoting/selling/buying/admiring of literature, but has anyone noticed the unbearable bias in the Guardian and the Independent’s latest freebie scheme? The ‘greatest poets’ idea, which they seem to have had at the same time as each other, is almost entirely composed of male poets – in the Guardian series, Sylvia Plath is apparently the only ‘great’ female poet from the 20th century, out of the seven chosen (and while she was amazing, that is beside the point) while the Independent fairs slightly better with Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Mew and The Bronte Sisters – out of 38 poets! THIRTY EIGHT!

It saddens me greatly, when there are, and have been for such a long time, so many brilliant female writers, that they do not get the recognition that they deserve.

vibracobra // Posted 19 March 2008 at 10:54 am

That’s the problem with having ‘greatest poets’. Greatest according to who? The female poets who got published and aren’t considered ‘great’ enough are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s bound to be loads of unpublished female poets, and they would just be the most privileged who thought they were worthy of writing, and then there would be the ones who couldn’t write, and the loads of illiterate ones because girls didn’t get to be educated.

That’s exactly why I’m more eager to have more writing workshops, better education, and instilling a better sense of self-worth in women of all backgrounds, rather than having more elite institutions to give out prizes to those who have already made it.

Sure, I can see the point of having the Orange Prize, I’m not massively against it, but it’s certainly a pretty glaring sign of the sexism in the industry, and it doesn’t do much to remedy it. And to be honest, writing shouldn’t be an industry, it should belong to the people, it shouldn’t be something for a few huge publishing houses to make lots of money out of.

And as for Orange Prize-winning novellists being poor, HA, HA, HA. Do you know what kind of connections you need to get there in the first place? Do you know what kind of background you need, to believe that you deserve for your writing to be published at all? I grew up wanting to be a writer, but I know lots of people who write better than me who wouldn’t hear of it and grew up wanting to be waitresses.

Ju // Posted 19 March 2008 at 11:42 am

I don’t have any sort of privileged background or money in my family. Yet I think my writing will deserve to be published, eventually, after I finish the novel, revise the novel, and get it up to the right standard. Why? Writing matters to me, therefore I do it, and I’ve wanted to improve it enough to actually show it to people who have given me helpful criticism but also said I have potential. That’s all it takes, really. The ovaries to show it to somebody and not be discouraged by the negative stuff but just accept you have a lot to learn. It’s a shame that people give up, but writing is an incredibly easy thing to practice. You can do it anywhere. It’s also very cheap to do. It just takes determination, which of course does take self-belief but I think that’s a separate issue really, part of a larger problem and not confined to writing.

I’m all for more support for beginning women writers, but at the same time I don’t want to stop anything that supports the careers of writers we already know to be good.

By the way, in case you’re interested, Spread the Word (http://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/) run some workshops for women writers only fairly regularly. This season they actually did a course called “Supporting the Process” that was about dealing with issues that might stop women writers from working.

vibracobra // Posted 19 March 2008 at 12:10 pm

“I don’t want to stop anything that helps the careers of writers we already know to be good”

That’s the thing though, do we know them to be good? We already agree the book industry is sexist in lots of different ways – I think even if there were more women writers than men getting recognition, there would still be the issue of what they got recognition for, what kind of themes women are expected to explore in their writing, and so on. And there would also be the issue of what kind of recognition they got – and I think that’s where the issue about having women’s prizes comes in.

A women’s writing festival, complete with workshops and opportunities to hear talks from highly successful writers – I mean, for all the system is very flawed, there’s no denying that someone like Margaret Atwood has pretty damn serious skills and if she spoke at an event like that, there would be plenty to learn from it. So that would be great. But a prize? Seems a bit suspect.

As for the privileged background, sure, there are exceptions, but on the whole, you have to think enough of your writing to think you deserve to be published, and I don’t know many working-class kids who have the confidence to write anything, let alone get themselves published.

Actually, from my personal point of view, I have a problem right there – that getting someone else to read your own writing is already an important part of being a writer. But that already has a huge effect on your writing, whether it’s good or bad, even if you don’t care what other people think, you still want it to be available for them to read – that’s very different from just writing.

sian // Posted 19 March 2008 at 1:20 pm

i was more disagreeing with the idea he proposed that writing was dominated by women. if that was the case, then the canon would be more balanced, and “women’s literature” wouldn’t be a genre. i would hate a course on “men in modernisn” as much as i hate the idea of “women in literature” precisely because it should be about the individual writer. but it clearly isn’t yet, and until that happens then i think the orange prize isn’t necessarily a bad thing. so few women win the nobel or booker because the field is so male dominated. there was a recent article about the best actress category in the oscars and how it was necessary because it would be so hard for women to win best actor. (actor meaning men and women here). in an ideal world the orange prize would be unnecessary, but right now i think it is a good way for women writers to gain recognition.

Nina // Posted 19 March 2008 at 3:53 pm

In a sense I agree with you, I work for a media organisation and understand your points about nepotism but Vibracobra we live in a society that does have awards, the publishing industry is nepotistic, it is easier to be a published writer if you meet people and they like you. This means these prizes will exist and will be awarded within the industry so before we discard the orange prize we need to break the boys club. It’s perfectly clear that all of this will take time, there is no revolution that will make all people equal in a day. You’re talking about an ideal that I agree with but the literature around the orange prize states that it was launched in January 1996 as a result of a Booker shortlist that contained no books by women writers. That was a reality that had to be dealt with because female writers couldn’t simply stop the Booker shortlist from existing or dismantle the nepotism of the publishing industry.

Sara Helen // Posted 19 March 2008 at 7:52 pm

I agree, Nina, that we need to “break the boys’ club”. It’s daft that ‘women’s literature’ is still a genre in itself, as if all female writers and readers are interested in the same things.

There was an interesting article in the Glasgow Herald today by Ruth Wishart about this same argument, over the Orange Prize. You can see it here: http://www.theherald.co.uk/features/featuresopinon/display.var.2130611.0.No_prizes_for_guessing_which_gender_is_still_on_top.php …I have no idea how to make that into a proper link where you click on one word. But you get the idea! And read the completely-not-the-point post by Phil in Edinburgh at the bottom.

Alison // Posted 19 March 2008 at 8:36 pm

There’s also the element of racism; I have a friend who managed to interest an agent in her writing; the agent told her that because she was black she ought to write about so-called “black issues”. She was outraged because she saw herself primarily as a writer and was under the naive impression that she should be able to write what she liked without being defined by gender/colour etc.

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