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Gender has no place in media coverage of book awards

The shortlist for one of the most coveted awards in science fiction was announced last week – the Arthur C. Clarke award for 2013 has an incredible line up of SF names, or, if you read The Guardian, is a great testament to male domination of the science fiction genre. Alison Flood’s opening sentence ‘reinforcing science fiction’s image as a boys club’ (sorry Angela Carter, Mira Grant, Connie Wilis, Margaret Atwood – seems your memberships are perhaps not as authentic as we all believed), leaves us little doubt that the following coverage will be everything other than informative.

And yes. The author goes on to show how the prize’s director Tom Hunter was asked to defend the shortlist, not on the basis of the merit of each or any of the books, but on the basis that there are ‘issues’ about gender parity in the wider industry. Issues arguably exacerbated (if not created) by the press’ ongoing insistence on squalling is this sexism? at every possible moment.

The coverage of book awards by the mainstream media is perennially absurd. Here are a number of headlines we’ve had over the years:

The Guardian: Arthur C. Clarke Award announces all-male shortlist (April 2013)

The Guardian: Men still dominate book world, study shows (March 2013)

The Telegraph: Costa Book Awards: winning women full deserve their prizes (Jan 2013)

The Australian: Women dominate Miles Franklin longlist (Jan 2013)

The Telegraph: All female shortlist for the Costa prize (Jan 2012)

The Guardian: Research shows men still dominate world of books (February 2011)

BBC News: Men still dominate Costa book awards (November 2008)

It seems we are absolutely unable to muster the courage to cover of any major book prizes without resorting to an easy (and false) dichotomy drawn against what I would call long-blurred gender lines. The distinction in my mind between male and female writers is non-existent. Female writers and male writers have both been wildly successful in myriad genres for years. While it’s easy to say things like ‘science fiction is written by boys for boys’ and ‘romance is written by women for women’, it’s a massive oversimplification of the way individuals interact with any media, and in fact the world.

That’s not to say there’s no truth in the idea that some genres have more of a bias toward one gender than another, but this is born out of statistical fact rather than human prejudice. What is not statistical fact is that these genres are closed to the opposite gender, and that there are no exceptions.

Maybe this is the newspaper’s angle that allows them to report on something as recurrent as literary awards, and if so I have to say it’s an incredibly lazy one.

If I had to put a headline on the shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke awards this year, it wouldn’t be ‘derp all the writers are… uhmm men’, which is so self-evident it makes my teeth hurt from grinding. It would be something along the lines of: ‘Science fiction has never been closer to the truth.’

This year’s shortlist addresses many serious and current issues in our lives: global warming; freedom of information; duty to others vs free will; treatment of illness; destruction of our habitat. One book, Intrusion by Ken MacLeod, is set in a future London where it is winter nearly all year round. I have to say, when I saw it snowing in the first week of April it did cross my mind that maybe MacLeod knows something we all don’t… yet.

The idea that one gender or other has a better capacity for imagination, expression, penchant for thoughts of a specific nature is redolent of an age where dildos were used to treat hysteria. Until someone comes out and says ‘I wouldn’t give them the award because they are male/female’, I suggest we leave articles that imply this sort of thought process where they belong: in the past.

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Felice Howden

Felice Howden had opinions before she knew what the word 'opinion' meant. She wrote for the publishing and ideas blog Socratic Ignorance Is Bliss, and has had short stories published around the place. She graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2008 with a degree in English and Philosophy, and now spends her time typing code and hatching brain eggs for the future of publishing in a major publishing house.

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