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
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.