Does the literary world need a women-only prize?

The Rosalind Prize for Fiction – named for Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' heroine – follows awards like Australia's women-only Stella Prize and the U.K.'s Orange Prize.

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    The Stella Prize was named after writer Stella Maria Miles Franklin.
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Does the book world need a literary prize exclusively for female writers?

That is the provocative question at the heart of a bold new trend slowly circling the literary world.

The U.K., Australia, and Canada apparently think so. Citing gaping gender disparities between recognition of men and women writers, each has launched literary awards just for female writers.

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The latest, Canada’s Rosalind Prize for Fiction, was conceived during the Vancouver Writers Fest as a group of women, including the founder of the U.K.’s TK, were discussing the “extreme gender inequality in the awarding of literary prizes both internationally, and in Canada,” according to Canada’s Globe and Mail.

One audience member, Janice Zawerbny, editorial director at Thomas Allen Publishers, was so moved by what she heard, she decided to do something about it.

“I was shocked and dismayed,” she told the Globe and Mail. “I just felt compelled to take action.”

Thus was the Rosalind Prize for Fiction born, a literary prize exclusively for female writers of fiction in Canada.

The prize is named after the sharp and witty female protagonist in Shakespeare’s play, “As You Like It.”  It’s also the name of British biophysicist Rosalind Franklin, whose largely overlooked contributions helped lay the groundwork for the discovery of DNA.

Zawerbny hopes to present the inaugural Rosalind Prize in 2014.

That’s one year after Australia will award its first Stella Prize, that country’s first major literary award for women. Named after novelist Stella Maria Miles Franklin (“My Brilliant Career”), the $50,000 prize is open for both fiction and non-fiction.

“The Stella Prize will raise the profile and the sales of books by women,” Stella Prize Chair Aviva Tuffield said of the award, according to the blog IndieWire. “We want to encourage future generations of women writers, by increasing the recognition for Australian women's writing and supporting strong female role models. We also want to celebrate women's contribution to Australian literature.”

(Ironically, notes the U.K.’s Guardian, the prize is named after the same Stella Miles Franklin whose bequest launched the Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin, which in recent years has come under attack for being a “sausage fest.” According to the paper, just 13 of the award’s 50 winners have been women. The Stella Prize, then, is something of a challenger to the established Miles Franklin.)

Both the Stella and the Rosalind awards were inspired, in part, by the U.K.’s Orange Prize, now known as Women’s Prize for Fiction, a literary award established in response to the 1991 all-male shortlist for the Booker Prize. Since its inauguration in 1996, that prize, say advocates, has helped push women writers into the mainstream.

Responding to critics who say the prize is exclusive and creates unhealthy gender categorization, Zawerbny told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “This prize that celebrates women's fiction doesn't create a pink ghetto, I think it's completely the opposite. I actually think such a prize is inclusive because it brings women into the fold, it brings them into the mainstream.”

As for those who think the prizes are unnecessary, consider these statistics, provided by novelist Susan Swan for the CBC:

 – In the 108-year history of the Nobel Prize for Literature, only 12 women have won. (In other words, women represent just 11 percent of Nobel Prize winners.)

 – Only 35 percent of Man Booker Prize winners have been women.

 – Only five women have won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Award for Humor since it was established 65 years ago.

And according to Gillian Jerome of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, roughly equal numbers of men and women get published in Canada. But women are less likely to have their books reviewed and less likely to win literary prizes – a third-less likely in each case, in fact.

“You see those stats and you’re like, this is so widely disproportionate; it almost can’t be true,” Zawerbny told the Globe and Mail. “Because you think we’ve evolved ... But we haven’t in many ways.”

The Rosalind, Stella, and Orange Prize are the answer, says Zawerbny and others like her.

What do you think – does the literary world need women-only prizes to level the playing field and bring attention to literature by women? Or is this a misguided and outdated move?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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