Wednesday 17 June 2015

Women in Saltire Literary Awards - A Discussion

Discussion Since 2012 I have been researching the Saltire Society Book Awards as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award.  This research is due to be submitted as a doctoral thesis to the University of Stirling in November this year.  The purpose of this research is two-fold.  Firstly, it will offer the first comprehensive history of the Saltire Society’s Book Awards and position this history in relation to Scotland’s wider cultural and literary history.  Secondly, as my research has given me a unique insight into the administration and organisation of the Saltire Society’s Book Awards, I will also use this experience in order to illustrate how books that are judged for an award are assessed and discussed by the Saltire Society’s Book Award judges.   

In the past few weeks there has been a number of blogs and articles discussing the gender imbalance in book award culture.  Nicola Griffiths’ blog  instigated this debate when she revealed the results of a study she had conducted which illustrated that there was a significant imbalance in the number of books written from the perspective of a female protagonist winning major international book awards.  This blog was followed by an article1 on the Guardian website by Alison Flood, who related this debate to wider issues of gender imbalance in the publishing industry. 

Of course, such debates led to questions surrounding the representation of women writers and protagonists in Scottish literature.  In response to the work by Griffith and Flood, Louise Hutcheson offered an overview of the gender disparity in the Saltire Society Book Awards (Scotland’s oldest series of awards dedicated to rewarding work from, or about, Scotland) and, most recently, the academic and former Saltire Society Book Award judge (2011-2014) Claire Squires wrote about this issue from her perspective as a feminist, researcher and book award judge.

I have followed this debate with great interest, as it not only speaks to my research interests, but also relates directly to my personal interest in the representation of women in literature and the publishing and creative industries.  Gender was one of the first issues I tackled when I began my research into the Society.  Indeed, the first conference paper I delivered, entitled ‘Women of the Saltire Society’, dealt with the gender imbalance of the Book of the Year and First Book of the Year Award winner’s roll call.  Only 6 out of 41 winners of the Book of the Year Award (this includes books of multiple authorship) have been authored, co-authored or edited by women.  Women writers fare slightly better in the First Book of the Award, with 43% of 28 winning books being authored, co-authored or edited by women. 

But this gender imbalance was not only prevalent in the list of book award winners; I also discovered that the founding of the Society itself, and its first written constitution, was shaped by Alison Sheppard (née Bonfield).  Although the Society has never obscured this fact, the founding women of the Society have not necessarily always been celebrated in the way they truly deserve.  However, in recent years the Society has taken an active role in the support of the achievements of women in Scotland, collaborating with the Glasgow Women’s Library to create the Outstanding Women of Scotland campaign in 2014.  This campaign asks members of the public to nominate the most inspirational and influential women working or living in Scotland today, from which 10 will be selected each year as inductees to the list of Outstanding Women of Scotland (you can find more information about this campaign and the information about the first 10 inductees here ).

However, where exactly do such gender divisions originate?  There is no doubting that the apparent gender imbalance in the women to men ratio of winners of the Saltire Society Book of the Year and First Book of the Year Award is disconcerting, but the statistics alone can’t give us the whole story. 

This was made most evident to me when, as a researcher who had looked at the statistical imbalance of women to men writers in the Saltire Society’s Book Award’s winners’ roll call, I then observed judging panel meetings and realised that gender was never discussed as a key aspect in the assessment of the books being adjudicated for the awards.  From my experience, the gender of the authors of the books being discussed for Saltire Society Book Awards is barely mentioned, and is by no means used as a deciding factor in the final valuation of the books submitted for the award.  The current judges of the Saltire Society Literary Award judging panel (who adjudicate for the Fiction, Non-Fiction and First Book of the Year Awards) have also expressed how, despite remaining keenly aware of gender imbalances in Scottish literature (and the arts in general), gender does not come into the conversations regarding the books they are adjudicating for the awards. 

Longstanding Saltire Society Literary Award judge Ann Matheson suggested that ‘the balance between men and women writers in literary prizes is surely part of a long historical process’, continuing to note how similar issues arise when other European Literary Awards are taken into consideration.  Mark Wringe, who became a Saltire Society Literary Award judge in 2013, was also sure there is no ‘conscious bias against women writers on our panel’ but agreed it was important to ‘look back over time at the trends’ in order to establish where such biases originate.  Likewise, theatre critic and Saltire Society Literary Award judge Joyce McMillan agreed that the statistics were alarming, but doesn’t believe that the problem originates from judging panel gender balance issues.  Joyce noted that, when she is ‘in the thick of a judging process’ she is ‘very enthused about certain work regardless of gender and only tend to think about gender balance retrospectively, sometimes too late.’ 

Joyce McMillan’s comment regarding the gender balance of the judging panel is an important one.  Book awards have often come under fire for having all male judging panels selecting all male shortlists (it is for this reason that the Bailey’s (formerly Orange) Women’s Prize for Fiction was founded in 1996 .  But it is over simplistic to suggest that the gender balance of a judging panel will guarantee a balanced shortlist.  In 2013, for example, a near all female judging panel chose an all-male shortlist2 for the Arthur C Clarke Award for science fiction. 

This said, there is of course the concern that failing to explicitly discuss gender in relation to book award culture is as much a part of the issue as direct discrimination towards women writers or books about women.  As a result, it is possible that, as Claire Squires argues in her blog, that such discriminations are part of a deep-rooted cultural ideology that suppresses women’s voices.

It is with all this in mind that I don’t believe we can consider this as purely being a problem with book awards.  Book award judges can only assess books that have been nominated by publishers.  Since 1982, despite the fact that more than 2,026 books have been submitted for the Saltire Society’s Book of the Year and First Book of the Year Awards, only 640 of these entries were authored, co-authored or edited by women.  That’s less than a third of all entries.  But as Ian Campbell, the current Convenor of the Saltire Society Literary Awards judging panel noted, ‘the books written in any one year don't set out to be 50/50 gender balanced in content, or subject, or author’, therefore the panel can only adjudicate the books that are nominated by publishers.

Accordingly, it may well be that publishers not only publish fewer books by, and about, women, but are also submitting fewer books by women authors for awards.  Such imbalances have a knock-on effect which will disrupt the gender balance of other elements of literary culture such as literary events and festivals. It is just such concerns of the institutional imbalance towards men and women writers that has led to Kamila Shamsie calling for 2018 to be made the ‘Year of Publishing Women’ in which only women writers should be published to highlight the fact that women are at a disadvantage in the current publishing environment.

What such debates and controversies prove is that gender imbalances in book award culture are in fact symptomatic of a wider, socially and culturally ingrained.  This is not to say that, historically, there hasn’t been institutional sexism in book awards; the statistics, after all, don’t lie.  However, we need to remain aware of the wider factors that influence such statistics, and think about making changes from the top down, rather than the bottom up. 

The Saltire Society’s Literary Award Panel Convenor, Ian Campbell, believes that ‘the criteria for judgement are continuously open to debate and criticism’ and hopes they always will be.  I think the recent debates regarding the representation of women writers and protagonists in Scottish literature will continue for years to come and will inform how award administrators and judges consider gender disparities in book award culture in future years.  Exactly how judges and book award administrators should negotiate such issues in the future open to interpretation.  In an ideal world, books submitted for awards would by anonymised, which means that the gender – and celebrity status, if the author is a well-known one – of the author would be hidden from the judges.  Such ‘blind judging’ could potentially offset any implicit or explicit bias.  But of course, this would not account for the gender of the narrative voice of texts submitted for book awards.  One, arguably easier, way in which such issues regarding gender bias could be tackled is if there was more transparency in book award culture.  We need to explore exactly how books are being judged and valued by book award administrators and judges, and, taking the data that has been revealed in the past couple of week on board, have full and frank conversations with publishers, authors and readers about who or what book awards represent in the 21st century. 


Stevie Marsden


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