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state of the arts

Just because men are in the minority in fiction, it doesn’t mean we should scrap the Women’s Prize

Barbara Kingsolver took home the prestigious award this week for her novel ‘Demon Copperhead’. With women accounting for nearly 80 per cent of book sales across the UK and North America, hasn’t the Women’s Prize already served its purpose? Yes, writes Claire Allfree... but there’s more to it

Saturday 17 June 2023 09:40 BST
Ian McEwan, left, part of the ‘old guard’ of male literary icons, and Sally Rooney, right, part of the new, women-driven paradigm
Ian McEwan, left, part of the ‘old guard’ of male literary icons, and Sally Rooney, right, part of the new, women-driven paradigm (Getty)

What, it has become customary to ask, is the point of the Women’s Prize, which was won this week for the second time by Barbara Kingsolver for her ninth novel Demon Copperhead, a searingly contemporary, Appalachian-flavoured Dickens reboot? Who needs a prize to promote and celebrate female authors when publishing is now overwhelmingly a women’s game, run predominantly by women for women?

Female authors dominate prize lists, bestseller lists, bookshelves and TikTok. In 2021 they were responsible for nearly 80 per cent of sales across the UK, America and Canada. Three of the final five winners of the Costa Book of the Year award (the prize ceased in 2022) were women. So were eight of the 13 longlisted authors for the 2022 Booker. So rare are hot young male authors these days that the recent decennial Granta list, nominating the best 20 writers under 40, managed to find only four of them.

The Women’s Prize, famously set up in 1996 in defiant response to the all-male 1991 Booker shortlist, has been dogged by these arguments for years. A measure, certainly, of the prize’s success (as a corrective against the pre-eminent swaggering male literary celebrity perpetuated by Amis, Rushdie, McEwan et al during the Nineties and the Noughties, it’s unquestionably achieved its aim), but also a warning against its usefulness. After all, leaving aside debates about representation and visibility, you could argue that women’s fiction is itself a problematic term – condescending and reductive. I wince when I hear it, in much the same way I wince at proposals for female-only carriages on the underground, or at that odious phrase, “strong women”. Even the prize’s website has me squirming, with its banner declaring “28 years of brilliant books by women”, as though it should be a surprise to anyone that a woman can write a brilliant book.

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