Like anyone else who reads a lot of books, I’m not a bit surprised by the news that book prizes favour narratives with male characters at their centre. In fact, literary prizes tend to favour books by men about men, as Nicola Griffiths’ research reveals: the Man Booker, for example, has awarded nine of its past fifteen awards to men writing primarily about men, the Pulitzer has awarded eight. The first five years of this century skewed the figures for the Man Booker: True History of the Kelly Gang, Life of Pi, Vernon God Little, The Line of Beauty and The Sea, all by men and primarily about boys or men (and a tiger).
Novels focussing on women or girls are very much less well-regarded, it seems. Griffiths finds only two recent Man Bookers have been awarded to such narratives, and none of the Pulitzers. She’s right to point out the obvious: stories about women are stories about half of the world. Fail to reward those stories with recognition and publicity, and you’re side-lining half of human experience. Quite aside from anything else, that’s robbing us of some good future books: publishers are often more likely to publish books which they think have a chance at a prize.
But perhaps the more revealing statistic is one which Griffiths doesn’t comment upon, and that is that of all the book awards for adults which she considers, none of them rewarded a book about women written by a man. This is probably reflective of books submitted: hardly any male authors write female narrators or even female protagonists. There are a few exceptions: Colm Toibin repeatedly ignores this rule, as has Ian McEwan. But it’s extremely unusual. If male authors want to win big prizes, as things stand, they should be writing about men.
Women, on the other hand, feel no such constraints: women write about men all the time. Hilary Mantel, just to pick the most obvious example, has done pretty well at the whole prize-winning thing by writing about Thomas Cromwell. Donna Tartt has to dust that Pulitzer every week thanks to Theo, the protagonist of The Goldfinch.
So perhaps the question we should be asking is not, why do books about men win more prizes? But rather, why do men and women feel confident writing about men, but men so rarely feel confident enough to write about women? Men have been the centre of stories since Homer, which sets the template: men have adventures while women wait for them or delay them. But we don’t live in a Homeric world now. So maybe it’s time for authors to subvert expectations and focus more on female characters. And perhaps the prizes will follow.