Scottish literary awards caught up in gender row

Lesley McDowell supported the novel by Lucy Ellman which she claims two of her fellow judges didn't finish. Picture: John Devlin
Lesley McDowell supported the novel by Lucy Ellman which she claims two of her fellow judges didn't finish. Picture: John Devlin
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A gender row has blown up after a female judge resigned from the Saltire Awards over the decision to give the Fiction Prize to a man writing about a woman over three women writing about a woman.

Lesley McDowell stepped down when Ewan Morrison’s Nina X was chosen over Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport.

The author was also concerned by the quality of the decision-making process given none of the five judges had completed all six books.

McDowell had not read Nina X because of a conflict of interest; only one of the panel judges had read Ruairidh MacIlleathain’s Còig Duilleagan na Seamraig because the other four did not speak Gaelic and – according to McDowell – two of the judges admitted not having finished the 1,000-page long Ducks, Newburyport.

McDowell, who has previously judged the Edge Hill Short Story Award and the New Writing Scotland awards, said her concern was rooted in statistics which show the books most likely to win literary prizes are by male authors writing male protagonists and the least likely to win are by female authors writing female protagonists.

“There were three women on the shortlist who had all written 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 have to get you to vote for her?’”

McDowell said she was told the prize could not be awarded jointly to two books, but later discovered joint awards had been made in other categories. She was also annoyed her name continued to appear on the website after she asked for it to be removed.

“Literary prizes can make a huge impact on a writer’s career because booksellers take notice of them,” McDowell said. “They might push the winner towards the front of the shop so it’s a real chance for it to do well.

“You have to take the job seriously and yet there was not a single person on the panel who had read all of the books in their entirety.”

Sarah Mason, Saltire Society programme director, said: “The 2019 Fiction Prize was judged by a panel of five judges (three female,two male) and overseen by an independent chair (female). The winning book was chosen by the majority. We understand this process, which is fair, can result in some judges not seeing their preferred title win. All 
Gaelic books in all categories were read by four independent Gaelic- speaking judges, one of whom represented the group on the fiction panel.”

Last year, there was controversy when Darren McGarvey’s book Poverty Safari – which had won the Orwell Prize – was not shortlisted for the Saltire Non-Fiction Book of the Year.

Laura Waddell, a judge in 2018 and 2019, said: “In my first year, I felt pressure from disgruntled outsiders trying to strong-arm the selection. Critical integrity as well as a refusal to bow to abuse go hand in hand, and it is women writers who have historically suffered when these things are compromised.”