There’s a new literary prize in Canada and it’s already bringing attention to the gender disparity in literary criticism and awards in this country. Dubbed the Rosalind Prize, the award was created (or is being created) by Janice Zawerbny, the editorial director of Thomas Allen.
When the US organization VIDA released a 2011 report on the gender disparity in American and British literary publications back in February, it helped start a conversation here in Canada about the gender disparity in our own literary magazines and, more specifically, the gender disparity in our literary criticism. And yet the general perception is still that women authors are doing pretty well in Canada. At least that’s what Zawerbny believed until she attended a panel on Women and Literature at the Vancouver Writers Fest last month. “I found [the statistics] shocking, because I work in publishing and it’s not a gender disparity that I was even aware of. If someone had asked me if things were equal in Canada, I would have said, “Oh yeah, of course they’re equal.”
The panel included Kate Mosse, UK author and founder of the Orange Prize (a women’s fiction prize in the UK); Gail Jones, an Australian author and academic; Susan Swan, a Canadian novelist and past chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada; and Gillian Jerome, a Canadian poet and founder of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA).
CWILA was founded earlier this year and its website launched with a count of the number of women reviewed in 15 Canadian publications during 2011. CWILA also published the percentage of books from the Governor-General’s Literary Award submissions written by women, by genre, and counted the number of reviews written by women. These are some of the statistics Jerome presented at the Vancouver Writers Fest panel.
Like Zawerbny, Susan Swan also believed that women were thriving in Canadian literature, but she discovered otherwise when she started doing research for the panel. “I was flabbergasted by the dismal statistics. Books by Canadian women receive only a third of our literary prizes and get only a third of the coverage in our national magazines and newspapers,” she explained by email. “And women write as many books as men; last year they wrote more.”
When asked if she thought that awards like the Rosalind and Orange prizes, and groups like CWILA, would make a difference to the inequality women writers are facing, Swan said: “I think these prizes open the conversation about our inherent biases. Not just in men but in women too. Historic precedent means it is often easier to give men’s books prizes. It feels natural because it has been done before. Does drawing attention to bias change bias? Eventually, yes.”
The Rosalind Prize, like the Orange Prize, will be an award for women’s fiction. Zawerbny is hoping to launch the award in 2014. “I don’t know if that’s realistic or not, but I think it is. I think a year to set up the prize… So 2012-2013 set up the prize and then 2013-2014 actually executing the first [year of the prize].”
Since initially discussing the prize with the Globe and Mail and making an appearance on Q with Jian Ghomeshi, Zawerbny says she has received a lot of support. Supporters have shown interest in both financing the prize and helping to set it up.
But as with anything, not everyone is on board. When Zawerbny was on Q, Jian Ghomeshi played a clip of Leah McLaren, a national columnist with the Globe and Mail, criticizing women-only prizes for putting women in a “pink ghetto.” Zawerbny disagrees: “Prizes like this are doing the opposite. They’re taking women, who are now being marginalized, and bringing them into the centre.”
Zawerbny’s goal is to put books written by women in the spotlight, which she believes will lead to more reviews, bigger audiences, larger advances and higher royalty rates. “The Orange Prize has actually done statistical analyses of the writers that are nominated for their prize and it has been proven that they do sell more books and they do make more money. The prize really affects the economic livelihood of women writers.”
What do you think of the Rosalind Prize and other women-only prizes? Let us know in the comments.