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The Costa Book Award nominations show progress - but there's still a LONG way to go for women writers


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Bucking a disappointing trend for 2016, women’s writing, it seems, is on the up.

This week, Costa announced the nominees for its Costa Book Prize and women dominate, representing 14 of the 20 nominees.

Rose Tremain (The Gustave Sonata), Maggie O’Farrell (This Must Be the Place) and Sarah Perry (The Essex Serpent) lead contenders for the £30,000 top prize.

It comes just a week after America’s National Book Awards announced four male winners. Quartz responded to that news with a powerful piece comparing literary prizes with the percentage of winning women authors. Despite their presence among bestseller lists, women authors, they found, are significantly less likely to win a literary prize. Female Nobel Laureates are outnumbered nine-fold.

Publishing’s bias towards men is not exclusive to the English-speaking world, but is a trend reflected across the majority of genres and cultures. Long-lists, finalists and award winners tend to be heavily dominated by male authors. This was particularly apparent at 2015’s Leipzig Book fair in Germany. Just one of five authors nominated in the fiction category was female, while no women at all were nominated for non-fiction work.

Meanwhile, the total percentage of translated literary publications published in the UK is struggling to rise above 5%, and international female writers are a minority within this minority; responsible for less than one hundred books in Britain each year. Such high levels of disparity are prompting many leading publishing houses and translation services, to ask “Where are the women in translation and publishing?”

Well, some industry professionals have put this sexist behaviour and social attitude down to national stereotypes of writers. “It's worth considering,” writes one Guardian contributor, “that translators and/or publishers in the English-speaking world are somehow biased towards a romantic image of the truly profound author as a tortured, chainsmoking man.”

Even when the winners of big literary prizes are female writers, their books often centre on the stories of men and boys. Stories solely about women and girls, written by either gender, rarely win prizes. Novelist Nicola Griffith put this theory into practice, gathering information on books that had won the biggest literary prizes available for fiction since 2000.

She charted the data on her blog, breaking down how many of the published works were about women. The results were pretty bleak: Only 16 books about mainly women and girls won one of the six major prizes since 2000.

It also goes that women writers are far more likely to write about male characters, as men are to write about women. Of those 16, only three were written by male authors, and all of those won the Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature — it hardly represents the most literary of genres.

One of the most celebrated books by a female author to be released in recent years is Hanya Yanaghara’s triumph A Little Life, which featured worryingly few, if any, female characters of any note. It reinforces a subtle but dangerous notion that the stories that should be told, written and rewarded are stories about men.

As more attention is drawn to the lack of female presence in literature, change is steadily getting underway. A talk from well-established author Kamila Shamsie has challenged publishers to have ‘a year of publishing women’ in 2018.

Actress and campaigner for gender equality Emma Watson has also launched an initiative to enable discussion around women’s writing that is inspiring, thought-provoking and empowering with her feminist book club Our Shared Shelf and her partnership with campaign group Books on the Underground.

So this is welcome news for women’s publishers, who have struggled to make their mark in recent years. Virago, perhaps the UKs best known international publisher of books by women, was bought out to become an imprint of Little, Brown & Co. in 1996. Persephone Books only reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-20 Century (mostly) women writers.

Linen Press, run by author and publisher Lynn Michell, is now the only independent women’s press publishing new material in the UK. They’ve weathered the storm and continue to release exceptionally fine writing for women, by women. As awareness and appreciation for the work of female authors across all genres grows nationally, the recognition and demand for international books is rising too.

English PEN translates pays grants out to deserving writers from around the world in order for their work to be translated into English. This year, half of the sixteen authors awarded grants were female. It comes as 2016’s PEN America award went to Katrina Dodson for her translation of Clarice Lispector's The Complete Stories, published by New Directions.

Meanwhile independent publishers are making international female authors their priority. Two new independent publishers, Calisi Press and Les Fugitives, are launching with the remit of publishing only women in translation. It’s a conscious push for equality that’s being reflected throughout the publishing industry.

As it turns out, the Costa book awards have been championing exceptional women’s writing for a while now, with last year’s overall prize going to Frances Hardinge’s gothic children’s book The Lie Tree, which tackles themes related to feminism in Victorian England.

And this year, the poetry shortlist is entirely female, too, with rapper and novelist Kate Tempest nominated for her collection Let Them Eat Chaos alongside Alice Oswald, Denise Riley and Melissa Lee-Houghton, who is published by independent press Penned in the Margins.

Here’s hoping Costa is but the first champion in book awards that feature the excellent work of women writers for years to come.

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