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9 February 2023

Why we need the Women’s Prize for Non-fiction

We might be tempted to see prizes for women as less necessary with each passing year – but non-fiction is still seen as a male pursuit.

By Hannah Rose Woods

It is 28 years since the Women’s Prize for Fiction was established, in protest at the under-representation of female authors in literary competitions. It was inspired, notoriously, by the 1991 Booker Prize shortlist, which failed to include a single work by a woman. The days of all-male lists may be gone, but as the Women’s Prize Trust announces a new award for non-fiction today, there is still little room for self-congratulation when it comes to how we view writing by women.

We might be tempted to see dedicated prizes for women as less and less necessary with each passing year, but it’s hard to argue with the statistics. By every available metric non-fiction books by women are given unequal visibility in the media. Last year just over a quarter of non-fiction reviews in national newspapers were of books written by women. Books written by men were twice as likely to be selected in lists of the best books of the year. Over the past decade, across seven UK non-fiction prizes, only 36 per cent of books awarded a prize were written by a female writer.

This lack of visibility is reflected in sales, too. Of the top 500 best-selling non-fiction titles in 2022, one in three were written or edited by women. The disparity is even starker in my own field, history: of the 50 highest-selling titles last year, just nine were written by women, with only one of those making it into the top 10.

Is this a question of who gets to claim expertise, as an author, and who is perceived by readers as having authority? As Erica Wagner, author and former literary editor of the Times, argues, “Writing and publishing certain kinds of non-fiction is still perceived as being something of a man’s game. Sigh. Let’s hope the Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction will really begin to shift that narrative.” For the historian Hallie Rubenhold, who won the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction in 2019 with The Five, “Women have always faced many challenges in establishing themselves as experts, and this struggle has played out quite visibly on our bookshelves. The publishing industry has encouraged men to write ‘big, important works’ about history and science, while women have often been asked to take on smaller, less visible topics, judged to be less significant.”

The gender disparity is shaped not just by the media and publishing industries, but by readers. As Mary Ann Sieghart, journalist and author of The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than men, and what we can do about it, has found, men are four times more likely to read a book by a man than a woman. (Women, on the other hand, are more likely to read a non-fiction book by the opposite sex than men are.)

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I feel very fortunate, as an author, to have had the opportunity to write the kind of “big, important” British history that tends to be dominated by male historians and broadcasters. But I’m aware, too, that I have entered an industry in which things are getting worse for women, not better. Women on average receive significantly lower advances than men and, at a time when median incomes are falling for all authors, this gap is increasing. A recent report by the UK Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society found that between 2017 and 2020 female authors experienced a 21 per cent drop in income in real terms, against 10 per cent for men, with the gender pay gap between men and women now standing at 41 per cent.

Black and mixed race authors were even worse hit. Any argument for equality needs to take into account the ways in which women of colour are doubly marginalised in publishing, as well as the ways in which working-class writers are excluded from an industry in which falling incomes make the prospect of writing for a living increasingly uncertain. And conversations about gender equality are increasingly happening in a climate in which transphobia is becoming frighteningly normalised. I worry that necessary initiatives for women might disappear entirely amid this gatekeeping. I’m glad there’s a new one.

[See also: On the eradication of species]

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