Contemporary Women’s Writing and Literary Prize Culture
24th June, Leeds Metropolitan University
This free one day event was organised and run by the Contemporary Women’s Writing Association, and focussed on the impact of the literary prize culture on the style and, perhaps more importantly, the availability of contemporary women’s writing. It was well attended by a diverse range of delegates. PGRs, academics, and writers were addressed on a varied range of topics presented by academics, an author and a commercial publisher and this cross-industry approach to the advantages and disadvantages of literary prize culture resulted in some interesting discussion, idea generation and even disagreements. There were five speakers at this event, all of whom had been invited to speak by the CWWA in recognition of their unique expertise with regard to the main topic of the day.
Delegates received a warm welcome upon arrival at the Northern Terrace site, and the atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. The absence of pre-presentation nerves among most of those in attendance added to the convivial feeling of the event, and this fed into some interesting conversation following on from some excellent and informative (and even interactive) papers.
Much of the day’s discussion focussed on the way in which market pressures skew the market in favour of books that publishers know they can sell. It seems that one of the biggest impacts as a result of literary prize culture has been the reduction in the availability of titles and the increasing commercialisation of fiction. This inevitably leads to a decline in literary fiction, and the general consensus of the day was that even those literary titles which do get through risk disappearing without trace if they cannot win, or at least get shortlisted, for one of those elusive prizes. In their paper Dr Helen Cousins and Dr Jenni Ramone discussed the antipathy of some readers to these prize winning books, they also referred to figures which show a shortlisted title can increase its sales figures by hundreds of thousands of copies. This trend of readers and publishers is of particular concern for women’s writing as all the speakers acknowledged the markedly lower numbers of female authored books which make it on to these lists (with the exception of the Orange Prize). The papers delivered in the morning sessions were complemented by the highlight of the day: Jane Rogers reading her own work and discussing this with Dr Susan Watkins, chair of the CWWA.
Jane Rogers has written eight books and a collection of short stories, for which she received nominations and awards from various literary prizes, most recently for her novel The Testament of Jessie Lamb. She read a tantalising section of this work, as well as one her short stories ‘Morphogenesis’, form her collection Hitting Trees with Sticks’. In discussion with Susan Watkins, Jane talked about how Jessie Lamb nearly sank without trace before being ‘rescued’ from obscurity by literary prizes. Showing a different side to literary prize culture, she discussed the way winning a prize can extend books life and readership, a note in contrast to earlier discussions which suggested books then become part of the hype of the moment, to be forgotten as soon as a new shortlist is announced. Jane acknowledged this complicated effect, particularly highlighting the literary prize culture’s feeding of the high street bookshops fixation on famous names, which further limits the availability of titles. This fascinating interview was concluded with the less positive notion of the artificial lines that literary prize culture creates within the market that has forced the necessity of women only prizes, such as the Orange prize, and with the hope that one day we will just be able to talk about literature, without reference to the gender of the author.
University of Bedfordshire