Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Award lists are important, but framing is important too

Over the past few weeks, I have had decidedly mixed reactions to the release of the Man Booker International Prize shortlist. The award - which has gone to women in translation twice in its history (as well as once to an English-language woman writer back when it was given to writers alone and twice in the parallel history of the International Foreign Fiction Prize) - suddenly emerged with a shortlist that was, to quote the Guardian and the NYT and just about every media outlet, "dominated" by women.

For the first time in history, the prize was not in its usual gender breakdown of 4 men and 2 women or 5 men, 1 woman. These are not just ratios of recent years, these are consistent numbers across the years (for the IFFP, at least). Women were consistently minorities, consistently outnumbered 5:1. They almost never took home the prize. And suddenly this year, the ratio flipped. Now it's 5 women writers and 1 man.

A shortlist "dominated" by women.

On the one hand, I am delighted by this shift. It's not about "beating men", rather it's a wonderful indicator that the women in translation project is working. The prize judges specifically cite the importance of diversity in their shortlist, in a way that makes it obvious that they are aware of what it means to have women in translation at the forefront. Prizes mean visibility, visibility means more sales, more sales means more readers, and ultimately more readers means that publishers may realize that it's in their financial interest (as well as their moral one...) to publish more books by diverse women in translation.

On the other hand... Framing is important, and the current framing of this shortlist as one "dominated by women" undercuts all of the hard work that has gone into this effort. It also undersells the list. It was deemed unremarkable for years that the IFFP had similarly ratio-ed shortlists, but with men "dominating"; men writer dominance was never commented on. The degree to which men writers have dominated literary discourse for decades despite stunning output by women writers is only discussed in the context of feminist perspectives. This creates the impression that women succeed only when there is a feminist agenda working in their favor. But the unremarked upon mostly-men shortlists? Those are simply as a result of the quality of the text, right?

It's important to recognize this shortlist. It's important to specifically recognize the degree to which it's still a rarity, that this is a shortlist that goes against market trends. Most important of all, recognize the women writers themselves, who are getting their moment in the spotlight, something that is still all too rare for women writers in translation.

2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Yes, absolutely. But I definitely feel like the process really HAS started! I'll write about this some more during WITMonth, most likely...

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