Is women’s writing only considered literary fiction if it’s about men?

Recently I’ve been trying to read prize winning novels, and I’ve noticed a disappointing similarity between most of the books. Critically acclaimed books by women are usually about men. 

Out of the last 7 Man Booker prizes awarded to women, 5 have had male protagonists*. Out of the last 7 Baileys/Orange Women’s prize for fiction winners, 5 have had male protagonists**. This prize is specifically for female writers, and yet according to the two of the big literary prizes, the best books written by women are usually about men.

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They are always very good books, but it makes me wonder. Are the best books each year really about men – or are those just the books the judges that think are most valid? Regardless of whether or not this is a subconscious preference towards male-led fiction, it’s a disappointing trend that should be actively addressed.

Female writers can write exceptional books about women, but are those books more frequently classified as women’s fiction instead of literary fiction? For whatever reason, these books aren’t recognised as frequently as the high-flying books about men.

I started reading the list of Women’s Fiction Prize winners to highlight female writers, so it’s a disappointment that all the books are still about men. I’m not saying that books about men should be excluded from the prize, but books about women should surely be honoured more frequently than they are. Reading through the long- and short- lists shows that these books exist, and are recognised initially. They deserve to win more often.

Where are my prizes for the female anti-heroes, whose male counterparts are honoured in books like WOLF HALL or MAY WE BE FORGIVEN?

Made by Mellieryan

Male and female writers are treated differently in publishing: Coverflip is a very visual example of this. People redesigned female covers as if they were written by men and vice versa, and the difference is astonishing.

Male authors are considered a lot more serious-less ‘genre’ and more general, and they have very unisex advertising and audiences. In a lot of cases a female author usually has a female audience, and whether that’s because of marketing or because boys don’t want to read girls books, it is sad.

I think female writers have to be a lot more careful in the kind of behaviour they display outside of writing too. If they make one bad quote or mistake they are vilified, whereas Orson Scott Card is still successful with film adaptations aimed at YA audiences, despite being a thoroughly nasty homophobe.

It doesn’t seem to matter that he is a terrible role model, whereas the fact that Stephenie Meyer is a mormon has been used as a reason not to read her books – so anything else she has to say isn’t worth listening to. I haven’t heard any male authors being cut out because of their religon.

I think it is definitely harder for a woman to recover from mistakes, and get herself taken seriously as a real contributor instead of a ‘female’ contributor, in any line of work. It’s very sad that it extents to publishing, an industry that seems like it should be better, as it is very female dominated.

How to fix it?

It’ll fix itself, in time. As long as women keep getting the chance to share their work, keep showing how brilliant and worthwhile their stories can be, keep giving more strong female characters to the world (and the minds of young future writers and people) it will slowly get better. YA is the place where it has to be done right, because ideas and stereotypes teenagers read will shape the way they behave the rest of their lives.

There needs to be more female voices. As authors, and readers, as characters, as minorities, as clichés, as mary sues, as ‘strong women’ but also as weak or unlikeable women. More women.

I’m going to go and reread THE BLIND ASSASSIN and THE TIGER’S WIFE and try not to feel bitter about the state of affairs.

 * THE LUMINARIES, BRING UP THE BODIES, WOLF HALL, THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS, and THE GHOST ROAD.

** MAY WE BE FORGIVEN, THE SONG OF ACHILLES, THE LACUNA, HOME, and THE ROAD HOME.

Published by Lauren James

Lauren James was born in 1992, and has a Masters degree from the University of Nottingham, UK, where she studied Chemistry and Physics. She is the twice Carnegie-nominated British Young Adult author of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, The Quiet at the End of the World and The Next Together series, as well as the dyslexia-friendly novella The Starlight Watchmaker and serialised online novel An Unauthorised Fan Treatise. Her upcoming release is The Reckless Afterlife of Harriet Stoker. She started writing during secondary school English classes, because she couldn’t stop thinking about a couple who kept falling in love throughout history. She sold the rights to the novel when she was 21, whilst she was still at university. Her books have sold over fifty thousand copies in the UK alone, and been translated into five languages worldwide. Her writing has been described as ‘gripping romantic sci-fi’ by the Wall Street Journal and ‘a strange, witty, compulsively unpredictable read which blows most of its new YA-suspense brethren out of the water’ by Entertainment Weekly. The Last Beginning was named one of the best LGBT-inclusive works for young adults by the Independent. Lauren is a passionate advocate of STEM further education, and all of her books feature female scientists in prominent roles. The Loneliest Girl in the Universe was inspired by a Physics calculation she was assigned at university. The Quiet at the End of the World considers the legacy and evolution of the human race into the far future. Lauren lives in the West Midlands and is an Arts Council grant recipient.  She has written articles for numerous publications, including the GuardianBuzzfeed, Den of GeekThe Toast, and the Children’s Writers and Artist’s Yearbook 2020. She teaches creative writing for Coventry University, WriteMentor, and Writing West Midlands, providing creative writing courses to children through the Spark Young Writers programme.

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