Write Stuff – Welcome to 1913

Happy New Year, and welcome to 1913! Sure, the calendar might say It’s 2013, but a recent headline about the Costa Book Awards makes it feel like we’re in a time warp. For the first time ever, all five Costa winners were women?and the underlying need to justify it reflects an even deeper problem.

The Costa Book Awards celebrate the works of writers based in the UK and Ireland (you might know the awards better by their former name, the Whitbread Literary Awards). The prize has been around since 1971, and the latest winners include such literary luminaries as Hilary Mantel and Sally Gardner.

And almost across the board, the winners? sex has been as newsworthy as their hard work and talent. Reuters, The Telegraph, The Guardian?all these major news sites, and dozens of smaller ones, noted the all-female shortlist in their headlines or in their leads. But for backhanded compliments, this follow-up Telegraph headline is in a category all its own: ?Winning women fully deserve their prizes.?

Good grief. As if, somehow, the judges got confused and thought they were handing out ribbons for the best apple pie, with a literary award thrown in as part of the prize. Why would there be any doubt that the winners deserve their success? It surely can’t be because they’re all the same sex. Otherwise, the same justification would have been made in 1986, and again in 2009, when every single winner on the list was a man.

The Telegraph columnist then goes on to explain that the winning books are ?so varied? that the judges probably didn’t even notice that ?the authors they have honoured were the same gender.? Good thing that the all-female lineup slipped by unnoticed then, cleverly disguised by a combination of skill, craft, and experience.

Like that Telegraph columnist, there are probably many who wonder if ?the existence of a female-only Orange Prize still [makes] sense.? In spite of the recent Costa shortlist, it does. Not only because of the double standard inherent in headlines like the one above, but also because of the numbers?which are hard to dismiss.

In 2010, the US organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts ?took on a seemingly simple project: to count the rates of publication between women and men in many of our writing world’s most respected literary outlets.?

The project has come to be known as The Count, and the numbers in each publication’s overall total include three categories: articles, book reviewers, and authors reviewed.

The 2011 totals are startling. You can click on the pie charts at the bottom of that VIDA page for more in-depth graphics, but here’s a sample of some overall numbers of published works: The Atlantic Monthly, 235 male to 91 female; Harper’s Magazine, 141 male to 42 female; The Times Literary Supplement, 2285 male to 832 female; and The New Yorker, with 613 male to 242 female.

There’s never going to be a precise balance between the sexes, and we shouldn’t demand one. Sometimes the prize lists and publishing catalogues will feature more men, sometimes more women. But as we begin another year of reading and writing in this modern century, It’s time we stopped partying like It’s 1913.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).

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