According to a novelist who has been tracking the numbers, books that win awards are seldom primarily about women
Sometimes the winners of big literary prizes are female writers, but often their books center on the stories of men and boys. Stories solely about women and girls, written by either gender, rarely win prizes, and that reinforces a subtle but dangerous notion that the stories that should be told, written and rewarded are stories about men.
Novelist Nicola Griffith had a hunch that this theory was true. "I've been counting, subconsciously then consciously, for 20 years when I was first published and started to see how skewed the playing field was," Griffith told me over email.
Last week, though, Griffith tried to back up her theory with data. She gathered all of the information for the books that had won the biggest literary prizes available for fiction since 2000, and charted the data on her blog, breaking down how many of the published works were about women.
When Griffith emails me, she's really clear that she considers these graphs only the first draft of what she hopes will be much more research into how the literary system works and who it rewards. "I'm looking for help in expanding it, checking it, correcting it, that I'm more into solutions than blame," she said.
Here's the chart she made for the Pulitzer Prize, which is probably the most esteemed literary prize in American fiction:
Griffith looked at the data for the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, the Hugo Award (given for science fiction and fantasy) and the Newbery Medal (for children’s literature) since the start of the 21st century. What she found extends deeper than the gender of the novelist and into the types of stories that novelists choose to tell and the award ceremonies that reward them.
What Griffith's research shows is pretty appalling. In the last 15 years 0 books about women and girls written wholly from their point of view have won the Pulitzer prize. (Books with chapters written from the male perspective — Olive Kitteridge, for instance —were categorized in Griffith's research as "both")
"For the prize that recognises 'the most distinguished fiction by an American author,' not a single book-length work from a woman’s perspective or about a woman was considered worthy," Griffith wrote on her blog. "Women aren’t interesting, this result says. Women don’t count."
There are of course arguments made in literature, as in every art form, that men don't like to read books about women (not true), and that books written by women or about women are simply not as good as books about men (also not true). Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that men would rather brag about reading a hefty male tome like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest than Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize worth Beloved, but anecdotes aren't data. It's easy to discount the idea that men don't read female authors based on a single person you know who loves them.
Griffith is in search of solid proof that books about women aren't getting the same kind of recognition that books about men are.
She's not alone in her data gathering, either. Since 2010, a group of tenacious women manually count every byline in major book releases, book reviews, and literary journals and tally up the gender disparity. This whole process is called the VIDA count, and every year they release pages and pages of concrete data about where and how women are represented in the literary world.
What the VIDA count consistently finds is that stories and reviews written by women are far less than 50% in most reputable literary publications.
"VIDA has shown that there are willing hands out there. Because that's what we need: many hands. If I were Empress of the Universe, we would assemble masses of data from many awards in many genres and categories," Griffith told me. "We would extend the reach to earlier in process: who writes about what; who reads about what; how many books by whom about what are published; how they sell; what kind of books are submitted for review/awards; the longlists, the shortlists… Everything."
Griffith's vision for a more complete data picture of the state of literature expands the idea of equality from the people who write and review the books to the stories that are actually contained within the books that we read and promote and review.
"The late '90s were a time of publishing optimism: bookstores and publishing seemed to be thriving. But that optimism failed. Publishing and the literary ecosystem took a big hit and slots—publishing slots, bookshelf slots, review slots — grew scarce." Griffith told me. "Scarcity leads to people falling back on what they know. The perception was male books were better, so the gradually improving ratios evaporated."
Only 16 books about mainly women and girls has won one of these six major prizes since 2000. Of those 16, only three were written by men, and all of those won the Newbery Medal for Children's Literature.
Prize winning stories about women, according to Griffith's data, are entirely books written by women and/or books written for children.
The conclusion, then, is that the more prestigious the award, the less likely the winning book will be about a woman. This, of course, is ridiculous. Plenty of brilliant, beautiful, literary books have been written about women since 2000 that deserve the same kind of notoriety. Take Emily St. Mandel's 2014 Station Eleven, or Louise Erdrich's 2009 The Plague of Doves, or Susan Choi's 2004 American Woman. And that's just off the top of my head. There are plenty of notable, brilliant works of fiction that aren't about men.
"Stories matter," Griffith said. "If more than half human perspective isn't being heard, then we are half what we could be. Stories subtly influence attitudes… If women's perspectives aren't folded into the mix, attitudes don't move with the whole human race — just half of it."
This post has been updated since its original publication to clarify that Griffith's analysis is a work in progress.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.