Motivated by “A Room of One’s Own,” Mia does some light mathematics and discovers that literary awards consistently ignore the contributions of female authors.
As someone with something of a journalistic disposition (spoiler alert: I’m a journalist), I couldn’t help but follow up my reading of “A Room of One’s Own” with some original reporting. Or rather, some original counting. The thing is, I believe Woolf’s thesis — as a woman and a feminist, how couldn’t I see the truth in her conclusions about the lowly status of female writers and the ghettoization of women’s experiences? The text struck a nerve with me, and I know my emotional response isn’t unique. In fact, by the end of the essay, I had formed a sort of mental solidarity with all the women who I imagined had read it since its 1929 publication and had thought to themselves, like I had, “If only Woolf knew how true her words still are.”
But, from 9 to 5, I deal largely in data and non-imaginary sources. So, for as late as Woolf’s pathos has kept me up at night, I’d feel remiss if I didn’t back her up with some numbers. Because, of course, we can’t redefine the literary canon if we can’t define it to begin with. We can’t know how far female writers have left to go to gain the respect and accolades they deserve, if we don’t know where they’re starting from.
Literary prizes are a decent measure of which books won’t be forgotten. Slap a “Winner of the Nobel Prize” sticker on a book, and not too many people will dare question the author’s greatness. As of today, 107 writers have received the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1901, and only twelve of those recipients — just over ten percent — have been women. (Second spoiler alert: This year’s winner was a man.) In fact, there was a period from 1966 through 1991 when no women at all won the literature prize.
I’m no historian, but wasn’t there some sort of women’s movement happening during that 25-year stretch? Wasn’t a major shift occurring in American society, and women’s concerns were starting to be taken seriously? Weren’t ladies putting on power suits and shattering glass ceilings left and right? Well, kind of. For women in their 20s like me, this is the mythical landscape we were born into: feminism’s work had been accomplished during that quarter century, and women and men were on equal footing. There are a thousand examples to illustrate the reality that feminism’s problems hadn’t been “solved” sometime between The Feminine Mystique and the Year of the Woman, including the fact that one the world’s most respected and well-known literary prizes couldn’t find a single woman to honor during that time.
But I digress (sort of). As for other prestigious literary awards, only 28 percent of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction awarded since 1948 have gone to women. And the National Book Award has only given 14 percent of its awards to women since 1950.
But maybe this measure isn’t fair, you say. After all, the 1955 Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the 1950s — of course the judges would favor men in those days. And it’s true: the density of women’s names on these lists often gets higher as the years progress. But women still seem to fare very poorly on retrospective best-of lists — the lists that proclaim, once and for all, that this is the best writing that’s ever been produced, this is the writing that speaks to The Human Experience or something. This is a book about War and Peace and Right and Wrong and Love and Death and Sorrow and Joy and Universal Truths and What It Means to Be Human. Sorry ladies, turns out you don’t know anything about those things. (Okay, maybe love. And definitely shoes. Fun, right?)
When the Modern Library released its list of the 20th century’s 100 best novels in the English language in 1998, only nine books by women were included. (At number 15, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is the highest-ranked woman’s work.) TIME magazine, which is, you know, pretty widely read, included only 20 women in its list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005.
And just last year, Publisher’s Weekly’s top ten books of 2009 included nary a female writer. The outrage the list prompted on the Internet proved that there are people who care about women’s voices, and that there are people who notice when women’s voices are snubbed. And surely there are more books being published by women today than there were in Woolf’s day, so where are the accolades?
As it stands, (straight, white) men’s experiences are the default and the yardstick by which we measure literary genius. Even though women, as a group, are more educated than they’ve ever been in this country, it’s nearly impossible for individual female authors to compete with that type of systematic favoritism.
As Woolf wrote, genius rarely materializes out of nothing; an atmosphere of institutionalized encouragement makes it possible:
“For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”
Just as female writers from past centuries paved the way for today’s female writers to create masterpieces and to be taken (somewhat) seriously, someone has to continue to pave the way for their works to be recognized as masterpieces. And the more that great works by women are promoted and lauded — both by distinguished literary institutions and by us plebeians — the more female voices redefine our ideas of what constitutes a great book.