Nicola Griffith’s Literary Prize Data experiment looks at the data of books awarded prizes, to see how they can be analysed by numbers of male and female writers awarded, and also (much more importantly, I think), how the sex division works for these novels’ protagonists. You can see the preliminary results here, and join the group to help collate more numbers.
I used the data of the BBC’s 100 Best Novels survey that I reported on last week, to do a similar analysis. I followed Nicola’s criteria for deciding which novel had male, or female protagonists, or those which used both relatively equally. Many of the 20th and 21st-century novels in the list are notable prize-winners, which needs to be factored in when thinking about the results, below.
The ‘unknown’ part of the chart in blue at the bottom centre represents Orwell’s Animal Farm, since this novel features no human characters. However, since they’re mostly male, this could be included with the male authors writing about male protagonists. Aside from that, the chart is clear.
Well over two-thirds (71% of total) of the novels considered as ‘best’ by the large group of of non-UK literary critics who submitted their votes to the BBC are written by men, but a little over half of these (51; 53% of male-authored novels) are about both male and female protagonists. A little under half (18; 47% of female-authored novels) of the novels written by female writers used both male and female protagonists, although the proportions expressed as percentages of the total number of novels, rather than just by men or by women, show a bigger difference: 38% of all the novels were written by men using both male and female protagonists, compared to 13.5% by women about both. Nonetheless, this suggests that about half of the novels on the list feature both male and female protagonists.
This is radically different from the (British) books awarded Man Booker prizes in 2000-2015, suggesting that there is are considerable differences between the criteria applied and critical judgements of the BBC’s panel and the Booker judging panels. I suspect that commercial appeal and the sense of the turn of eminent authors to win has a lot to do with this. The difference is even greater when you look at the Pulitzer Prize stats (though these will include a large number of novels written by authors from the USA). The numbers are closer for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, which is very interesting, giving strength to my hypothesis that professional critics think and judge differently to book prize panels. Even though professional critics are usually prominent as book prize judges, working with a mixed group will sway their independent assessment.
Looking at the male/female divide in the BBC’s list, many more novels by women writers with solely female protagonists (11% of the actual total, 40% of the female author total) were selected than those by male writers (0.04% of the actual total, 0.06% of the male authored total). This extraordinary evidence of (either) male writers not writing about women, or critics not thinking highly of male writers writing about women is compounded by the fact that after 1908 no male author on the list wrote about women. Defoe (Moll Flanders), Richardson (Clarissa), Thackerary (Becky Sharpe), Carroll (the immortal Alice), and Forster (Lucy Honeychurch) wrote novels about women: their successors didn’t, or those novels in which they did so weren’t considered by the critics to be of the ‘best’ (which are two quite separate possibilities).
This is right on track with Nicola’s evidence: of the six prizes she surveyed across the last fifteen years, only three winning novels by men were about women or girls, and all three won the Newbery Medal, for children’s literature. For the last century, male authors have not been doing their ‘best’ writing about women, or, if they have, those novels have not been put on school and university curricula, and have not been winning prizes.
The ‘century divide’ becomes very stark indeed looking at the numbers for how men and women protagonists appear in the list. Here are four bar charts, for each century’s authors in the list, with the female authors’ works in blue, and the male in red.
Recall that this is a very small dataset of 132 novels, and the methodology for selection is unknown and wildly random, varying across an unknown number of individuals using their personal tastes to select the ‘best’ novels. Nonetheless, there are clear trends in the ‘best’ novels over time: that very few novels by men about women are the ‘best’. It also shows that in the 20th century, it may have been that writing both male and female protagonists became the only way that men who did want to write about women could get them into the plot and get published. Never forget the role of publishers as literary gatekeepers.
Look also at the left-hand scales: the numbers of 20th-century authors represented are larger than for other centuries by a factor of ten. This magnifies how few novels with only women protagonists are considered to be ‘best’ in British fiction, in contrast to those featuring both men and women. I find it rather heartening that novels with both male and female protagonists seem to do so well in this list, in contrast to those in Nicola’s data. It is quite clear that while male-protagonist novels also do very well, women-only novels are simply nowhere. This list reflects the novels taught in schools and universities over the last three generations, and awarded prizes, and tells us that 20th- and 21st-century novels with solely women protagonists are not now considered to be the ‘best’.
The charts were made by me using Excel, and by David Marsh using R.