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Aug 09, 2007

Comments

Niall

Specifically, I looked at US awards, since 1987, for novels by women writing from the first person POV of another woman.

Do you have the figures for (a) all first person novels, (b) women writing first-person men, (c) men writing first-person men and (d) men writing first-person women?

Niall

Sorry, that was a bit abrupt. What I mean is: can you rule out the possibility that genre awards are more hospitable to first-person narratives in general? (I would be surprised if this is the case, mind ...)

I also wonder what proportion of published novels are first-person or third-person. I know, for example, that only about 20% of the submissions for the Clarke Award last year were written in the first person. Assuming that proportion is consistent, and assuming men and women are equally likely to write first-person narratives and more likely to write about their own gender when they do so, you'd expect to see about 10% of Clarke winners being first-person novels by women and women. Which, I think, is about what we see. (I haven't read all the Clarke winners by women, nor do I have them all to hand to check, so I can't be sure. But it's either just under 10% or a bit higher.)

Bookdwarf

It's an interesting observation. I remember when the New York Times came up with their list of the top 25 books ever or whatever it was called, very few women authors ended up on the list. Literature is still a male dominated world and I'm not sure why. I wonder who reads more, women or men?

Christopher

Eh, Niall, I think you might be a little too worried about methodology here. Nicola's observations ring true, and for the purposes of this kind of discussion, the "unscientific" approach is sound ground to stand on when beginning a discussion. (I'm reminded of something John Kessel once said about the old "double negative" saw--"Grammar isn't algebra.")

My question for Nicola about this is whether she's ever written anything from a male POV (first, tight third, whatevah). I know none of the novels are...

Gwenda

I don't know about reads more, Megan, but I have always heard that women by far buy more of them (something like 70 percent). A friend who served on several awards juries came up with a theory that one of the reasons male authors tend to win more awards -- at least in literary fiction -- is because while juries can agree on which books by men are strong, it's much harder to come to a consensus on the books by women (and especially when they're about women). I'd like to hope (assuming it's right) that this will change over time as "the canon" and what children/teenagers/young adults are exposed to as they form their opinions about what texts _are_ sample from a wider base of material.

Great points, Nicola. I'll also add that the field of children's literature is overwhelmingly populated by women, and so when you consider that, there's actually an increasingly high proportion of male nominees/winners for the major awards. Many people have been talking about why that is, but it's definitely becoming more prevalent as the field gets more respect... which would tend to support your rationale here.

nicola griffith

Well, you all get up earlier in the morning than me...

Niall, I thinking of this as a self-service discussion. I went to the awards websites and wikipedia, then to my own library or to amazon or google books to check person and POV etc. It was a pretty tedious exercise which is why I didn't expand it. But I did notice a fair few men-write-women (The Hours) and men-write-men (Motherless Brooklyn) and men-write-um (Middlesex) here and there among the awards. What does it mean? I don't know. I was simply struck by the disparity in percentages between the pure genre awards (the Clarke, I would argue, is more prestigious than many; the awards certainly have tended towards 'hip and cool' rather than down-the-line-SF the last couple of decades).

nicola griffith

The only thing I've written from a male POV, Christopher, was a Warhammer story about a boy who falls in love with a girl who, apart from liking girls /grin/ was literally tainted. I've been toying with filing off the Warhammer serial numbers and expanding it into a kind of alternate history history (or a sword-swangin' magic with ponies novel, depending).

The next book I'm thinking of will be third person, an attempt to do both epic and intimate--from the point of view of a woman who likes both women and men. At least that's what I'm toying with.

And the current new book, of course, my box o' memoir, And Now We Are Going to Have a Party: Liner Notes to a Writer's Early Life, is nothing but first person girl. Though the list for Santa I wrote when I was seven makes clear my gender refusal. It begins (I'm paraphrasing): Dear Santa, for Christmas I would like a pretty dress, an automatic rifle, a manicure set, a gun and holster...

Niall

"Eh, Niall, I think you might be a little too worried about methodology here."

Quite probably -- I think my train of thought got shunted in that direction by "statistically significant". That said, I'm not immediately convinced that there is a disparity in recognition for women-writing-women greater than the initial disparity that comes with being a woman writer. Looking at the Booker prize, for instance -- five women have won in the past twenty years, and of those three (possibly four, since there's one I don't know and can't find anything online to tell me) won for novels written partly or entirely from a first-person female viewpoint. The ratio seems to be about the same as for male winners.

Nicola Griffith

I initially looked at prizes administered in the US (because comparisons between US and UK awards is a whole other story).

But after you comments, Niall, I decided I'd look a bit closer. That resolve lasted about ten minutes--just long enough for me to peer at the last ten years of the Pulitzer Prize: of the nine novels (there was one story collection) five were in 1st person. None were by women about women (three were by and about men--I'm including Middlesex; two were by women about men).

As I say, this is just me talking and pointing--no science, no bold statements parading as fact--but I dunno, it looks lopsided to me. And if I had a list-making mind, I'd bet the Newbery and the RITA would tell a seriously different tale.

So now I wonder if, as Gwenda has suggested, as certain genres become more respectable, women are going to get pushed out. (I could draw parallels here with nursing and teaching. As the pay improved, men started moving into the top spots of a still overwhelmingly female job).

But I don't want to keep rehashing Feminism 101. I want to know if anyone has any ideas about how to change things, or what any of this really means for fiction and its future. After all (sweeping statement alert), women buy most books; I think they read most novels. If we don't get our stories told, we'll have to go away and invent another form, another genre, and then watch it all happen again. Or am I just getting too science fictional here.

Thoughts?

Niall

Yeah, that looks a bit more lopsided. If I'm following you, you're arguing that there's a filter (or maybe a set of filters) between books as they are written and books as they are read (mostly by women) that siphons off, or hides, the books by women about women, and asking how we break down the filter. My answer is: hell if I know. I'm part of that filter -- both on a personal level, as someone who talks about books in public, and with my role at Strange Horizons, and as a Clarke judge -- and it's incredibly resilient.

SH, for instance, routinely receives more books for review by men than by women (I had to chase down Flora Segunda, I had to chase down the new Nalo Hopkinson, the new Kathleen Ann Goonan, the new Susan Palwick); and if I send out a list of books for review and ask people to pick the ones they're interested in, the books by women get left for last, and I have fewer women reviewing for me than men; and the women reviewing for me tend to be busier than the men, and review less frequently. I don't understand why these trends point the way they do, but they all tend to reinforce the status quo, which is that the books by men get talked about at greater length and more loudly. Each of the trends can be corrected for, but they have to be corrected for *constantly*, and I'm never as successful at it as I might hope.

Long-term, the only effective solution I can think of is to change the reading habits people acquire as they grow up, so that surveys like that Guardian one you mention eventually become a thing of the past; but I think wiser heads than mine have worried at that problem without much success. Anyway, it's ridiculously late over here, so I'm going to get some sleep and see if inspiration strikes tomorrow.

Kathryn

I loved all those books, Nicola. More, please.

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