Saturday 10 April 2021

Gender, writing and judging

"The Best American Short Stories (1994)” was edited by Tobias Wolff. He didn't know who the authors were when he was picking stories. He chose about twice as many male authors as female. The year before when Louise Erdrich read blind, she chose twice as many females as males.

Such outcomes shouldn’t surprise us even nowadays. The 2020 longlist for the Edge Hill University Short Story Prize had 12 authors, all female, and 3 judges, all female (the entries were published books - I don’t think the judging was blind).

In "Why Women Read Fiction" Helen Taylor pointed out that "Female readers are [...] the main buyers of fiction, members of book clubs, attendees at literary festivals, and organisers of days out to fictional sites and writers' homes". As more readers become writers, and more females become judges, the gender balance of prizewinners is bound to change. Judges, like other readers, will more easily understand the allusions and concerns of writers who share their life experiences.

Having more than one judge will help reduce partiality, but how many judges are necessary? Gender’s not a binary issue, and besides, there are so many other issues to consider - I suspect judges also tend to select stories by authors their own age, etc. There are times when I barely understand my nieces’ conversation when they talk to each other - what chance would I have judging their prose?

So although one shouldn’t typecast judges (their tastes are often far wider than their books might suggest), I don’t think one should over-estimate their broad-mindedness, especially if they’re authors rather than tutors/academics.

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