I take double pleasure in the fact that Ali Smith has won this year’s Baileys Prize. First, because I deeply admire her books. And second, I find it extraordinarily satisfying that it is a book about the difficulties faced by female artists that has come up trumps in a women-only literary prize. It broadcasts the fact that we’ve far from solved gender problems in the arts.
How to be Both is a work that interweaves past and present, love and injustice, art and reality. There are two cleverly layered narratives: the first is set in Renaissance Italy and focuses upon the artist Francesco del Cossa, a real (male) 15th century artist from Ferrara who is imagined by Smith as a girl disguising her sex in order to become a successful artist. The second is about a 1960s girl called George who lives in Cambridge.
There has never been any question about del Cossa’s male identity, so it is particularly significant that Smith altered history in order to explore the difficulties faced by woman of artistic talent to have a successful career. While Smith chooses to focus upon a painter, she could have as easily decided upon a poet, dramatist or writer of prose. Women in the Renaissance were expected to be good daughters, wives and mothers – certainly not artists and writers. For Smith, the character of the woman artist speaks across time and place in order to draw our attention to the continued inequalities between male and female authors.
And this, of course, takes us back to the Baileys Prize. Launched in 1996 (originally as the Orange Prize), it seeks to celebrate the “excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world”. The need for such a prize was clear: while women published more novels than men (60%/40%), men won many more literary prizes; by 1992 only 10% of the winners of the Man Booker Prize had been women.
Things haven’t changed much. Recent research into the 15 years of the six major literary awards found:
When women win literary awards for fiction it’s usually for writing from a male perspective and/or about men. The more prestigious the award, the more likely the subject of the narrative will be male.
Between 2000 and 2014, for example, nine Man Booker awards went to men, writing about male protagonists.
So, if you’re a woman, and particularly if you’re writing about female characters, your chances of winning a literary prize, with all the financial remuneration and recognition that entails, are extremely limited. As always, this reflects the continued inequality between women and men. It’s significant that the Guardian’s article on the topic goes on to discuss the lack of equality in the publishing industry as a whole. The three biggest corporate houses (Penguin, Random House and HarperCollins) are now run by men, even though a high proportion of their lower-paid staff are women.
Since women publish more novels than men, read more novels than men and because there are more women than men working in the publishing industry, the lack of prizes awarded to female authors and the dearth of senior female publishers is particularly damning.
Righting the balance
This is where the Baileys Prize comes into its own. Its all-women shortlist seeks to redress an imbalance and to challenge the male domination of the publishing world. Looking at the judges for this year’s prize it appears that an emphasis on equality and, in particular, gender equality probably had some influence. The Chair of the committee was Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty (the British civil liberties advocacy organisation). She sat alongside Cathy Newman, Grace Dent, Helen Dunmore, and Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project.
We can have no way of knowing whether any of these judges sought consciously or unconsciously for a novel that spoke to the injustices experienced by women here in the UK and around the globe, but we are able to detect how creative and political elements come together in Smith’s successful novel.
When Ali Smith created the characters of del Cossa, a woman who must hide her sex in order to be artistically successful, and George, whose name surely recalls the famous nom de plume, George Eliot, she made sure that all readers, female and male alike, recognise how hard it is for a woman to be successful, to get published, and to be awarded the same recognition and pay as men.
And while How to Be Both may be set in the Renaissance and the 1960s, its truths about inequality are just as relevant today. Even if women don’t have to hide their sex or change their name, they still need to fight for those glittering prizes.