Last year, Triple J presenter and comedian Tom Ballard raised something on Twitter I’d been thrashing around in my head for a while too.
“Is the concept of having male/female awards in the arts outdated?” he asked. In sport, separating sexes has always seemed logical (although athletes like Caster Semenya complicate that idea nicely), but how do sex-specific awards in the arts make any sense? If gender has no influence on artistic merit, then why award men and women separately?
Think about it for a while and your brain might just melt. Besides the excellent fashion photography opportunities, why do categories like Best Female Artist and Best Actress exist? Is there really a need for the Orange Prize, the annual UK-based literary award given to a female novelist? My favourite response to Ballard’s question came from former Triple J newsreader Emma Swift. “It’s complicated,” she tweeted back, pointing out industries like music and film are still male-dominated. “Drop categories [and the] awards will become cockforests.”
Whatever you want to call it — a cock-forest, sausage-fest, dude-zoo (I prefer ‘dick-factory’ myself) — it’s clear that in the arts, the schlong garden has long been overgrown. One way to counter that is to grow your own garden. Last week, the Guardian reported that an all-female steering committee of Australian writers, publishers and editors were in the process of starting an Australian version of the Orange Prize. Similarly to how the Orange Prize was conceived (after a 1991 Booker shortlist featured no women), the proposed Australian prize partly responds to how, over the past three years, two Miles Franklin shortlists have featured no women whatsoever.
It is the second time in three years that the Miles Franklin shortlist has been all male. In the past 10 years, the big prize has been won by a man eight times. (The exceptions are Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria, which won in 2007, and Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire, which won in 2004). What are we to make of this? Are men 80 per cent more genius than women? Or just 80 per cent better at winning prizes?
They’re good questions. What, exactly, is going on? Are women actually worse writers? That can’t be right. Do they avoid, or care less, about “important” (i.e. award-winning) subject matter? Does motherhood and its demands play a role? Is the judging panel, indeed, a dick factory? (That isn’t right either. Three of the five Miles Franklin judges are women.) Whatever the reason, the outcome’s still the same: a yawning, vagina-shaped gulf in how accolades in Australia are distributed between the sexes.
In other sectors of the arts, you’ll find similar debates. The summer edition of Storyline—the Australian Writers’ Guild magazine—featured an open letter from 18 prominent Australian female playwrights. It was accompanied by charts showing how, in mainstage Australian theatres, ridiculously few plays written by women were being produced. For their 2011 seasons, the worst were Ensemble Theatre (Sydney), the Queensland Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, none of which had scheduled a single play written by a woman. Playwright Suzie Miller wrote: “While quotas are an end point […] obviously women writers would applaud the lack of need for them.”
In 2009, the Sydney Morning Herald music critic Bernard Zuel questioned why the $30,000 Australian Music Prize had been awarded to four male-fronted bands, over the prize’s first four years. Before Zuel’s story, the AMP judging panel was reportedly weighted towards men, two to one. That changed, and the next winner was the former Australian-Idol-contestant-turned-Triple-J-darling Lisa Mitchell. Immediately, her win became the subject of countless vicious blog entries (mostly by men) speculating it was the result of a positive-discrimination conspiracy. (Former AMP judge Chris Johnston quickly debunked those claims.) It is depressing when it takes a major op-ed like Zuel’s for anyone to even notice the cock-forest growing in front of their face. Four male-fronted bands win in a row and it’s a meritocracy. One woman wins a prize and it’s a conspiracy. Someone pass me a bucket.
The literary world’s £30,000 Orange Prize has always been controversial since its 1996 launch. Writer and critic Paul Bailey was on the Orange’s alternative male judging panel in 2001, but believed the prize itself shouldn’t exist, saying “sexes should not be separated like this in art”. Alain de Botton pondered (as he tends to do), “What is it about being a woman that is particularly under threat, in need of attention, or indeed distinctive from being a man when it comes to picking up a pen?” These are valid points. Women write equally as well as men. And if women’s voices are, indeed, somehow marginalised, why should we marginalise them further with female-only awards?
These criticisms didn’t just come from men. South African writer and Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer famously rejected her Orange nomination, arguing the very concept of the award was sexist. A.S. Byatt is not a fan either, to the point where she has forbidden her publishers from ever entering her works. Anita Brookner, a Booker winner, said: “If a book is good, it will get published. If it is good it will get reviewed.” Following on from that, if a book is the best, it will be awarded.
Brookner, I feel, is wrong. Most writers and publishers know books don’t get published just for being “good”, just as they don’t win awards because they are “best”. In fact, many people in publishing will tell you — often while inebriated at writers festivals — that it’s common for exceptionally bad work to get published. If you take Brookner’s insistence that a meritocracy exists, what are you supposed to make of the raw figures? Books written by women are reviewed less. Women win fewer literary prizes. If that is a meritocracy, then you have to buy into the argument that books by women must be inherently inferior. I can’t accept that. The danger in relying on a meritocracy is assuming one actually exists.
No one in the arts, I hope, goes out to purposefully marginalise women. I feel much of the perceived sexism being discussed is more the result of oversight, or a benign neglect, than anything else. Still, when I used to work as a music writer, I can’t tell you the amount of times I heard music festival organisers, managers, publicists, musicians and punters—men and women—telling me they didn’t actually like the sound of a woman singing. (Sounds too much like nagging, I suppose.) In the book world, I’ve also heard writers, editors, critics and publishers complain that female writers don’t write about the “big picture” enough, as if families or interior lives aren’t part of something panoramic and worldly.
Some of my female writer friends are conflicted about the proposed female-only literary award. One said, “I normally dislike anything ‘just for women’ as I don’t think it helps us compete. In trying to help us, they kind of reinforce the attitude that we’re not as strong or capable. That said, and completely contradicting my previous statement, it’s kind of bollocks how few women have been shortlisted for book awards lately. So I’m strangely in favour of the Aussie Orange Prize.” Another female writer friend was more eloquent in her response. “Give me money,” she said.
Few people complain about the Vogel for marginalising old or established writers; fewer would suggest Indigenous writing awards—like the David Unaipon Award for literature, or this year’s Kate Challis RAKA Award—marginalise non-Indigenous writers. All of these awards are respected for what they are, not for what they aren’t.
Perhaps the question isn’t, “Why should this award exist?” but “Why the hell shouldn’t it exist?” When I worked as a bookseller for five years, customers took notice of Orange Prize winners. People wanted to read them. Sales spiked and readers bought copies in bulk for their book clubs. The Orange Prize increased readership of writers like Lionel Shriver and Zadie Smith, and reaffirmed the already-established careers of Barbara Kingsolver and Marilynne Robinson.
People’s opinions depend on whether they choose to see such an award as excluding men, or celebrating women. I would see it as the latter. If women are banding together to create an all-female literary prize, I’d like to see it get up, whatever it’s called. (Best suggestion so far comes from Melbourne critic Mel Campbell, who has suggested the Mango Prize, which made me laugh for too many reasons to mention.)
As the Australian publishing industry faces increasing challenges from overseas online sellers and new distribution models, any initiative that financially rewards writers and boosts their profile (and sales) should be welcomed by anyone who supports Australian writing. God knows, the potential sponsorship opportunities for the awards are boundless. The Vogel Award gives out boxes of cereal at their ceremony; just think of what could be handed out at an all-female literary prize. If I were on the steering committee, I would be calling Weis. After all, oranges are not the only fruit.