Prize could pro­vide much- needed recog­ni­tion for fe­male writ­ers

Edi­to­rial di­rec­tor hopes to es­tab­lish new Cana­dian fic­tion award for the ‘ un­der- re­viewed’ and ‘ un­der- val­ued’ in lit­er­a­ture

Vancouver Sun - - ARTS & LIFE - TRACY SHERLOCK Sun Books Ed­i­tor tsher­[email protected] van­cou­ver­sun. com

A ses­sion at Van­cou­ver Writ­ers Fest on women and lit­er­a­ture last week was the cat­a­lyst for a de­ter­mined Jan­ice Zawerbny to de­cide she’s go­ing to try to found a new Cana­dian fic­tion prize for women.

Zawerbny, edi­to­rial di­rec­tor at Thomas Allen Pub­lish­ers, an On­tar­i­obased in­de­pen­dent pub­lish­ing house, said she was shocked by the sta­tis­tics she heard given by a panel of women at the fes­ti­val. The panel in­cluded novelist Kate Mosse, who founded the Orange Prize to cel­e­brate out­stand­ing fic­tion by women, poet Gil­lian Jerome, who founded Cana­dian Women in the Lit­er­ary Arts, novelist Su­san Swan and Aus­tralian au­thor Gail Jones.

The numbers that so dis­mayed Zawerbny show that women are se­ri­ously un­der- rep­re­sented among lit­er­ary prize win­ners, de­spite writ­ing more than half of all books pub­lished in Canada and mak­ing up at least half the book- buy­ing mar­ket.

Sta­tis­tics pro­vided The Van­cou­ver Sun by Swan show that just 34 per cent of Giller Prize and Gov­er­nor Gen­eral fic­tion prize win­ners have been women, while just 20 per cent of win­ners of the Hi­lary We­ston Writ­ers’ Trust Prize for Non- fic­tion have been women, just 11 per cent of No­bel Prize win­ners and eight per cent of Stephen Lea­cock Award win­ners have been women. The Man Booker Prize has only been won by women 35 per cent of the time.

So Zawerbny is de­ter­mined to reward fe­male au­thors with a Ros­alind Prize for Fic­tion, named for Ros­alind Franklin, a Bri­tish sci­en­tist who Zawerbny said dis­cov­ered DNA but re­ceived no recog­ni­tion for the dis­cov­ery, and Shake­speare’s Ros­alind, the strong fe­male char­ac­ter from As You Like It.

While the award is still very much in its in­fancy, Zawerbny said she aims to launch it in 2014, af­ter find­ing a spon­sor and es­tab­lish­ing a board to ad­min­is­ter it.

Sta­tis­tics com­piled by Cana­dian Women in the Lit­er­ary Arts and Univer­sity of B. C in­struc­tor Jerome ear­lier this year found that most news­pa­per book re­view­ers are male and men’s writ­ing is re­viewed more of­ten than women’s writ­ing. The study found that among news­pa­pers, 33 per cent of books re­viewed in the Na­tional Post were writ­ten by women, while 40 per cent of re­viewed books in the Globe and Mail were.

Women in lit­er­a­ture was un­der dis­cus­sion at a Univer­sity Women’s Club event in Van­cou­ver on Sun­day by Van­cou­ver writ­ers Anne Giar­dini, who is also a lawyer and chair of the Van­cou­ver Writ­ers Fest, and Genni Gunn, whose most re­cent novel, Soli­taria, was longlisted for the Giller Prize 2011.

“Women are un­der- re­viewed and un­der- val­ued for what they do. Women are be­ing pub­lished, but the in­equity is that if you write a book and no one knows it’s there, no one is go­ing to buy it,” Gunn said. “When we stop dis­cussing is­sues of equal­ity, we re­ally will have come a long way.”

Both Zawerbny and Swan said they don’t think there is in­ten­tional sex­ism against women writ­ers.

“I ac­tu­ally think it’s more an un­con­scious bias that is pretty sys­temic. And it’s not just men,” Zawerbny said. “I think this is a fe­male thing too.”

“There was a dis­cus­sion on the panel that men shun read­ing women’s fic­tion be­cause they feel that they’re not go­ing to to get some­thing out of it, whereas women read fic­tion writ­ten by a man and they iden­tify with uni­ver­sal ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Mean­while, Zawerbny plans to fol­low the model of the Orange Prize, awarded glob­ally for ex­cel­lence in women’s writ­ing, and the new Stella Prize for Aus­tralian women’s writ­ing. The Orange Prize has been spon­sored by Bri­tish cell­phone com­pany Orange since its in­cep­tion in 1996, but 2012 is the last year of that part­ner­ship, so the prize is now look­ing for a new cor­po­rate spon­sor.

“I have a model to fol­low. I know that there will in­evitably be a back­lash with peo­ple say­ing this is re­verse sex­ism, but I think the numbers don’t lie and those prizes ( Orange and Stella) helped with the recog­ni­tion of fe­male writ­ers,” Zawerbny said.

Al­though her idea was born at the Writ­ers Fest event, the call to ac­tion came from the re­sponse to that idea on so­cial me­dia. Some­one men­tioned the idea on Face­book, then many peo­ple started talk­ing to Zawerbny as though it was a fait ac­com­pli. “This thing sort of took off on Face­book. I’m more of a dreamer than a doer, but this is forc­ing me to put my money where my mouth is and get it done,” Zawerbny said.

As part of the dis­cus­sion on Face­book, Swan said the crit­i­cal ne­glect of women’s fic­tion is the ele­phant in the room.

“It’s time to talk about it. Not be­cause rep­re­sen­ta­tion can be con­sis­tently 50- 50 but be­cause the rep­re­sen­ta­tion in both prizes and the cov­er­age of women’s books is con­sis­tently skewed to about a third of what male writ­ers get here,” Swan wrote.

In an in­ter­view, Swan said she isn’t sur­prised the equal­ity dis­cus­sion oc­curred here in Van­cou­ver at the Writ­ers Fest.

“The Van­cou­ver Writ­ers Fes­ti­val is a unique cel­e­bra­tion of writ­ers and read­ers. When you go, it’s like en­ter­ing a lit­er­ary com­mu­nity — the read­ers are go­ing to talk about some­thing they’re in­ter­ested in with the writ­ers,” Swan said. “It’s quite a won­der­ful feel­ing that comes out of Alma Lee and Hal Wake’s stew­ard­ship. I think they con­sciously set out to do that and I think it’s more of a B. C. ethos than it is in the East.

“In Van­cou­ver, at ev­ery event, the au­di­ence is al­ready plugged in.”

Swan said she will sup­port Zawerbny’s ef­forts to es­tab­lish the Ros­alind Prize. “I think it will boost the lit­er­ary ca­reers of Cana­dian women writ­ers and bring aware­ness to the need for more con­sis­tent crit­i­cal sup­port of fic­tion by Cana­dian women,” Swan said.

Jan­ice Zawerbny says the idea for the award was born at the Writ­ers Fest.

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