Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, none were about women. Lest you think that was some freak coincidence, novelist Nicola Griffith has come out with an informal study showing that the devaluation of women’s stories is not confined to the screen.
Griffith has observed over the past two decades that, like movies, books with female protagonists don’t seem to hold the same cachet as male-driven ones.
She tested her theory by analyzing the winners of six prestigious literary prizes — the Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker Prize, National Book Award, National Book Critics’ Circle Award, Hugo Award and Newbery Medal — for the last 15 years. Griffith’s findings led her to conclude, “When women win literary awards for fiction, it’s usually for
writing from a male perspective and/or about men. The more prestigious the
award, the more likely the subject of the narrative will be male.”
The “Slow River” author situates the Pulitzer at “the top of the prestige ladder.” So, how many Pulitzer Prize-winning books, “the most distinguished fiction by an American author,” focus wholly on the point of view of a woman or girl? Nada. Zero. Zilch. “Women aren’t interesting, this result says. Women don’t count,” Griffith opines.
Women fare much better at the “bottom of the prestige ladder,” which Griffith identifies as the Newbery Medal, which is awarded to kid-friendly material. Among winners of the Newbery Medal, women took up a girls’ perspective five times and men three times. So, in fact, more Neberry Medal winners over the past decade and a half have been about girls than about boys. Griffith’s take on these results is that, when it comes to awards consideration, “Girls, then, are interesting. Girls count.”
“It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, when it comes to literary prizes, the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women,” the English-American novelist writes. “Either this means that women writers are self-censoring, or those who judge literary worthiness find women frightening, distasteful, or boring. Certainly the results argue for women’s perspectives being considered uninteresting or unworthy. Women seem to have literary cooties.”
It’s far from news that women writers are at a disadvantage. The 2014 VIDA Count revealed that female writers continue to lag behind their male counterparts as both literary reviewers and reviewees, and nearly all the publications studied, save for a few exceptions, print more male than female bylines in the relevant sections. What’s interesting about Griffith’s data is that major awards strongly favor books about boys and men regardless of the gender of the author.
Griffith believes, however, that this “skewed publishing landscape is fixable.” Her proposed answer to the problem is further fact-finding — determining “what books about women and about men are reviewed, submitted to awards, longlisted, and shortlisted” and after that’s done, researching “who writes about women, who writes about men, who publishes it, who reads it.” The hope is to gain a better understanding of the publishing ecosystem in order to make it a fairer playing field.
“Data is the way forward,” she insists. “Data will give us patterns. Patterns will give us connections. Connections will help sort correlation from cause. When we have causes, we can find solutions — or at least begin to experiment with a variety of solutions. And it will take experimentation: small (or radical) changes at many levels.”
See all of Griffith’s charts and read her commentary in full on her website.