Bias against women writers, judges who don’t read the books, claims of political posturing – is the awards system doing its job, asks Dani Garavelli.
When Lesley McDowell agreed to be a Saltire prize judge she knew she was taking on a hefty commitment. All those who sign up are expected to read around 20 books, plus all the ones that make it on to the shortlist, which is a lot of work on top of the day job.
She knew there would be no financial compensation – not even expenses to cover the cost of travelling to Edinburgh and back. But she is a bibliophile. And literary prizes are important. It didn’t seem too much of a hardship.
Yet last month McDowell, left, resigned from the panel as the five judges – two male and three female – argued over the winner. Her reasons were complicated but they centred on two main complaints: that no-one on the panel had read all the books in their entirety; and that Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport – a book written by a woman about a woman – was being overlooked in favour of a book written by a man about a woman, Ewan Morrison’s Nina X, which went on to win.
The discussion of the books’ relative merits was constrained, McDowell claims, because a conflict of interest meant she could not read Morrison’s novel and two of the judges had failed to make it to the end of Ellmann’s 1,000+ page tome.
For some people perhaps, the gender of the writer and/or the protagonist might seem irrelevant. But McDowell was aware of research by academic Nicola Griffith which showed the books most likely to win awards were those written by men about men, while those least likely to win are those written by women about women.
McDowell believed this – and the possibility of unconscious bias – should be taken into account when assessing the shortlist, and that Ellmann’s novel, which has been compared to Ulysses, should not be so quickly dismissed.
“There were three women on the shortlist who had written about women. One of the three was Lucy, whose book had been shortlisted for two national prizes and described as a masterpiece. My question was: ‘What else does a woman have to do to get you to vote for her?’
The row has led to calls for a review of adjudication procedures. But the Saltire was far from the only cultural prize to be dogged by controversy. Several countries boycotted the Nobel ceremony in protest at the decision to award the 2019 literature prize to Austrian author Peter Handke, who has been vocal in his support of Serbian leader and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.
The Turner prize was accused of “woke posturing” after the four shortlisted artists were granted their wish to split the £40,000 prize amongst them as a collective statement of “commonality, multiplicity and solidarity” at a time of political crisis, while Olivia Laing split the £10,000 prize money from the James Tait Black Memorial prize with her fellow shortlistees because “competition has no place in art”.
The biggest awards stooshie, however, centred on the Man Booker, after the panel broke the rules and split the prize between Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments and Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.
The Man Booker is no stranger to controversy, some of it – one suspects – trumped up to keep it in the headlines. In 1993, for example, two of the judges threatened to walk out when Trainspotting appeared on the longlist. Irvine Welsh’s novel was pulled from the shortlist to satisfy them.
This year’s row, however, was particularly damaging. As the first black woman to win the prize, Evaristo’s triumph should have been celebrated as a landmark moment. But most of the media attention fell on Atwood, whose sequel to her 1985 classic The Handmaid’s Tale had been much anticipated.
It was The Testaments that was pushed to the front of bookshops, and Atwood’s photo that dominated the front pages, though - unlike Evaristo – Atwood had little need of the extra publicity.
Evaristo’s exasperation reached its peak when BBC presenter Shaun Ley referred to the Man Booker being shared by “Margaret Atwood and another author,” thus erasing her achievement.
Consternation was also caused when a Booker jury member appeared to admit the prize had been shared with Atwood to mark her “titanic” career. Sam Jordison, whose tiny publishing house, Galley Beggar Press, published Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, also on the shortlist, wrote: “We were led to believe it was a book prize, not a career prize. This is devastating to read. Why enter? In what way is this fair?”
He added “Lucy went through so much, worked so hard, went to so many events. We have spent thousands of pounds that we don’t have. And we never had a hope from the start.”
Of course, awards play a vital role in the publishing industry. They boost the incomes and profiles of both the winning authors and their publishers. The smaller the publisher, the greater the impact.
When Graeme Macrae Burnet’s book His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2017, it established his publisher Saraband as a force within the industry.
“There’s two obvious ways in which awards are beneficial,” says Dr Stevie Marsden, whose PhD charted the history and significance of the Saltire Awards. “If you win a major award, or even if you are long or short-listed it’s going to increase your sales – so that’s beneficial for both the publisher and the author.
“ It’s also good for exposure and for an author and a publisher’s CV. For a publisher to be able to say ‘our author has been shortlisted for the Man Booker’ is a real feather in the cap.”
Programme director Sarah Mason says: “The Saltire Society literary awards have a strong track record in supporting Scottish writers.
“They enable books, authors and publishers that may not ordinarily receive attention in an incredibly competitive and saturated literary marketplace to be brought to the fore and commended for their achievements.
“The roll call of previous winners is remarkable. Authors like Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, William McIlvanney, Tom Leonard, Muriel Spark, Norman MacCaig, Iain Crichton Smith, Alan Warner, Ali Smith, Liz Lochhead, Janice Galloway, James Robertson, Jackie Kay, Kate Atkinson, AL Kennedy, Sue Black and Michel Faber have all received Saltire Society Literary Awards over the past 37 years.
“What’s more, Kennedy, Kay, Faber and Smith all received the Society’s First Book of the Year Award for their debut works before going on to have illustrious careers. Such trends indicate that the Society’s Literary Award judging panels have, over the years, had an eye for recognising Scotland’s best writing talent.”
And yet the latest controversies raise thorny questions about the purpose and structure of literary awards. What are literary prizes for? Are they to mark illustrious careers; or to give exciting new voices a bit of a hand-up?
And is everyone competing on a level playing field? If – as is the case with the Man Booker – the publisher has to pay £5,000 every time one of the books it has entered reaches the shortlist and another £5,000 when it wins, then the odds are stacked against small independents.
The Man Booker also links the number of entries a publisher can submit to the number of books it has previously had on the long-lists, which are continually dominated by the big conglomerates. Of the 75 books long-listed between 2010 and 2015, 23 came from imprints from Penguin and Random House (which merged in 2013 to become Penguin Random House).
“If it’s your first time, you only get one submission, but it’s per imprint, so, again, a big publisher like Random House with lots of imprints could be submitting quite a lot of entries.”
Just as importantly, it raises the question of what can and should be done to increase diversity so book prizes begin to reflect the gender and ethnic make-up of the society in which they exist.
The challenge in scrutinising books prizes is that the adjudication processes are often shrouded in secrecy. “It is a bugbear of mine,” says Marsden. “I think prizes expect readers to buy into what they recommend, but because we don’t know anything about that judging process we are taking what they say on trust.”
All that changed however, when Marsden, then a postgraduate student at the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication, and its director Professor Claire Squires took up dual roles as researchers and functionaries for the Saltire Society literary awards. Thus Marsden – a researcher-administrator, and Squires, a panel judge – had both insight into its inner workings and an opportunity to write about them.
Last week, the pair published a joint paper, entitled The First Rule of Judging Club: Inside the Saltire Society Literary Awards, in a special issue of the Journal of Cultural Analysis and Social Change. The article looks at the make-up of the panels, the way the books are distributed and the judging process.
Squires explains that, when she started, every panel member was expected to read between 70 to 100 books. When that proved too onerous, the system was changed with panels split in half and the books shared between the two halves. Each pair (or set of three) would select three or four books to take into the next round at which point the two halves of the panel would reunite to consider them all. This made logistical sense, but meant many books were dismissed without the full panel ever having sight of them.
Another flaw, Squires felt, was the way the shortlist and winner were decided at the same time. Each panel member would give the books a secret ranking and then the top-ranked book would simply be chosen as this year’s de facto winner. “There was no real discussion about how the books had been ranked, and about whether it meant that books which were consensus choices made it onto the shortlist by getting 5s and 6s, rather than a book which one person had ranked really highly, but others seemed to dislike.
“The process of the ranking was done secretly. I thought this was odd – surely we should be willing to express our opinions?”
After Squires raised this issue, the system was changed. The panel no longer used the voting system as the final decision-making mechanism and the winner was picked at a later meeting. Even so, Squires sometimes felt under pressure to make a decision before sufficient discussion had taken place.
In terms of gender, Squires and Marsden found that – in common with most prizes – the Saltire did appear to have a slight bias against female writers with female protagonists. They were making their observations in the context of research into a number of Scottish prizes carried out by academic Louise Hutcheson in 2015.
Hutcheson found the Saltire Society’s First Book of the Year had a 50 per cent split of male/female winners. However, this apparent equality obscured the fact that few of those winning books focused on a female protagonist, and one of the few that did, The Echo Chamber (2011), was written by a man, Luke Williams.
The statistics for the Society’s Book of the Year showed only 14 per cent of recipients were women. The only winner with a female protagonist was Mo Said She Was Quirky (2012) by James Kelman.
This information led Hutcheson to conclude: “In 2012, the Society stated that ‘this suite of awards truly reflects the commitment of civic Scotland to literature in all its forms.’ A grand claim – one that, alas, they haven’t quite managed to reflect’.”
Marsden and Squires believe the Saltire simply reflects existing social biases. “There is a history of the society having a gender imbalance, but it’s reflective of the literary and publishing culture more broadly,” Marsden says. “There was a dearth of Scottish women writers and then they started to come through in the late 80s and early 90s – the society’s awards reflect that. In the end, prizes can only adjudicate what is being published and what is received. As an administrator, I sometimes found I had to bug publishers to send books and there were years when books the judges wanted to read just didn’t arrive.”
This issue is not, of course, confined to literature. Just last week, a male-dominated shortlist for the British Journalism Awards prompted some London-based female journalists to launch a rival women-only awards.
This is not ideal. Few women want their work ghettoised. On the other hand, the launch of alternative awards may embarrass the organisers of the originals to address the deficit.
The setting up of the Orange Prize for Women (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction) was inspired by the 1991 Booker prize where none of the six shortlisted books was by a woman despite 60 per cent of the published novels that year having been by a female author.
“You could see the Booker realising: ‘We are going to have to do something about this’ because the new prize had a good funding package from Orange, they were very marketing savvy and they were pointing out something that needed to be pointed out: that women were getting a raw deal,” says Squires.
“I have looked at what happened in the ten years that followed and they brought in more female judges and made more positive decisions about women as a result of the action.”
The problems McDowell faced were both structural and gender-based. She had conflicts of interests with four books including Morrison’s and so was excluded from reading them.
In addition, the Gaelic book Còig Duilleagan na Seamraig by Ruaridh MacIlleathain was read only by the panel’s single Gaelic speaker. McDowell’s greatest concerns, however, revolved around the two judges she insists didn’t finish Ellmann’s book.
“One of the judges actually said to me: ‘I don’t see gender when I read,’” she says. “Every year the Women’s Prize [for Fiction] has to answer the same question, why do we need a prize for women? Well, the answer was right in this meeting. A woman was being overlooked, her book not even finished.”
Squires agrees McDowell’s experience highlights the need to take gender on board in judging books. “The idea you can judge quality without thinking about gender and demographics is problematic,” she says. “When I was a judge that was always something I wanted to talk about: who the writers were and what they were writing about.
“It wasn’t thought of as illegitimate, but equally it wasn’t something all the judges thought was necessary. And I think that reflects a lot of thinking in society more broadly around ideas about positive discrimination, which I am very much in favour of.”
Certain prizes are known for courting controversy. “The Booker did this in its earliest years in an effort to establish itself as a bit of a spectacle,” says Squires. The decision to award the Turner Prize collectively to all four artists carried the whiff of a stunt too – one that was well-timed to coincide with a period of turbulence and which would lose its power by being repeated.
The Saltire Society, on the other hand, has not sought out scandal as a means of generating headlines.
In the wake of last week’s story, it pointed out improvements it had made in the last few years. “Since 2013 the Society has continued to develop the Literary Awards scheme to facilitate a more cohesive celebration of Scottish literature,” Mason said. “We have expanded the awards to include publishing, emerging publishing, poetry, fiction, non-fiction and lifetime achievement. The Society annually reviews the awards process to ensure they are run fairly and professionally, while representing Scotland.
“This year saw the introduction of independent chairs for judging panels and also in, 2019, all panels were gender-balanced and the awards represented a 50/50 split of female and male recipients.”
Yet the society failed to directly address the principal point raised by McDowell: that none of the panel members had read all the books in their entirety though it insisted Ellmann’s book had been thoroughly “examined”.