The National Book Award finalists, which were announced yesterday, include five authors in fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and six authors in young people's literature. Lady finalists outnumber or equal men in every category except poetry. Finally.
In fiction, four out of five finalists are women, including Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, Julie Otsuka's The Buddah in the Attic, Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories, and Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones.
In non-fiction, three out of five authors were women, including Deborah Baker's The Convert, Mary Gabriel's Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, and Lauren Redniss's Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout.
In poetry there were only two: Nikki Finney's Head Off and Split and Adrienne Rich's (!) Tonight No Poetry Will Serve. And in young people's literature, there were another three: Debby Dahl Edwardson's My Name is Not Easy,Thanhha Lai's Inside Out and Back Again, Lauren Myracle's Shine, and Franny Billingsley's Chime.
Earlier this year, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts published a series of charts comparing the gender of book reviewers and of the authors of the books being reviewed across several large publications, including The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, Poetry, and the Times Literary Supplement. Only The Atlantic (in "Cover to Cover") and Poetry (in terms of authors reviewed) had slim female majorities. At the time, VIDA wrote, "We know women write. We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity."
In Bitch's "The Ambition Condition: Women, Writing, and the Problem of Success," Anna Clark writes that ambitious female authors are often told en masse that they have nothing — or nothing of worth — to say. Clark argues that as a result of gender bias in pop culture, in publishing, and in the recognition of women's writing through literary awards, ambition is punished and has resulted in a lot of self-deprecation that the industry does little to correct:
"Anyone who’s stepped into a literary community — readings, performances, writing workshops, MFA programs — will testify to the disclaimers that issue regularly from the mouths of women writers in particular. 'This is just something I thought I’d try,' and 'I’m not really a poet, but…' are words regularly uttered even by those who made drastic life changes in order to carve out time to write. [...]
Ambition is a slippery creature in the lives of writers of all genders; no one is safe from feeling uneasy about affirming one’s literary ambitions, and insecurity is the devil of anyone who faces a blank page. But the thing is, women are more likely to be justified in doubting themselves. Yes, a woman is less likely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: in 106 years of the prize, only 11 winners — about 10 percent of the total — have been female. In the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction’s 60-year history, female authors have snagged the award 27 times. Shaking out 57 years of the National Book Award for Fiction reveals a mere 15 female winners. As for journalists, the gender gap indicates that women are far less likely to land their stories in the nation’s top magazines and newspapers."
The National Book Award is now in its 61st year, and only 16 of the fiction winners have been women (#16 was Jaimy Gordon, with Lord of Misrule, in 2010). Having a higher percentage of female finalists is no guarantee that the winner will also be female, but it's certainly a step in the right direction.
Last week, National Book Foundation announced the winners of its "5 Under 35" award. Four of them were women, too. Earlier this year, Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with her (fantastic) novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad — a fact that upset some fans of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. (Speaking of Franzen, there was also Jodi Picoult's white-male-literary-darling-gate, in which she repeatedly and justifiably criticized the New York Times for its love affair with writers who fall into that category almost exclusively.) Egan also won the National Book Critics Circle Award last year, which she also beat Franzen for.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Egan said:
WSJ: Over the past year, there’s been a debate about female and male writers and how they come off in the press. Franzen made clear that “Freedom” was going to be important, while others say that Allegra Goodman was too quiet about “The Cookbook Collector.” Do you think female writers have to start proclaiming, “OK, my book is going to be the book of the century”?
JE: Anyone can say anything, that’s easy. My focus is less on the need for women to trumpet their own achievements than to shoot high and achieve a lot. What I want to see is young, ambitious writers. And there are tons of them. Look at “The Tiger’s Wife.” There was that scandal with the Harvard student who was found to have plagiarized. But she had plagiarized very derivative, banal stuff. This is your big first move? These are your models? I’m not saying you should say you’ve never done anything good, but I don’t go around saying I’ve written the book of the century. My advice for young female writers would be to shoot high and not cower.
The winners of the National Book Award will be announced November 16. The results of one award, or even a handful of them, however prestigious, are not enough to alter the history of overlooked female authors, journalists, and writers. But it's a damn good start.