Great female writers are nothing new – what’s new is recognition

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Emily Reynolds
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Women writers are not a new phenomenon, but you wouldn’t know it by comments made by Nobel Prize for Literature committee chair Anders Olsson.

Women have been writing great books for centuries. From the Bronte sisters – whose novels are still being adapted for the screen – to Margaret Atwood, whose 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale has found new resonances with readers, TV viewers and political activists alike, there is no shortage of brilliant books by women.

You would think then, that the chair of one of the most prestigious prizes for literature in the world, would know that women writing well is not a new phenomenon.

But today, as the Nobel Prizes for Literature for 2018 and 2019 were awarded, committee chair Anders Olsson said he hoped the prize would become much broader in scope “now we have so many female writers who are really great”.

His comments came after Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature – making her only the 15th woman to be given the award.  Tokarczuk had also been awarded the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel FlightsDrive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, another of her books, has also been widely lauded by critics. 

So why, given how critically successful Tokarczuk is, as well as the success of numerous other female novelists, does Olsson think it’s only now, in 2019, that women are beginning to produce great work? 

It could partly be because the women writers have generally been valued less than their male counterparts, as research in 2018 showed. Women’s fiction has also often been derided with the use of the term ’chick lit’, and women writing stories about family are often said to be penning ‘domestic fiction’ while men who tackle the same topics are writing ‘state of the nation’ books.

Tokarczuk is an outspoken feminist in her own country, and the judging committee described her as “a writer preoccupied by local life but looking at earth from above… her work is full of wit and cunning”. The committee also praised her “narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” Tokarczuk will be awarded a diploma and medal, as well as a prize of £746,678.

The fact that a woman author was awarded the prize is not entirely unsurprising. The prize committee had recently been embroiled in several years worth of scandal after a member was accused and subsequently convicted of rape. It had also been criticised widely for its focus on male authors, as well as those from Scandinavian and other Northern European countries. 

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In the history of the prize, only 14 women had won – now 15. There have been 113 male winners.

Other women who have won the award are:

  • Selma Lagerlöf, 1909
  • Grazia Deledda, 1926
  • Sigrid Undset, 1928
  • Pearl Buck, 1938
  • Gabriela Mistral, 1945
  • Nelly Sachs, 1966
  • Nadine Gordimer, 1991
  • Toni Morrison, 1993
  • Wislawa Szymborska, 1996
  • Elfriede Jelinek, 2004
  • Doris Lessing, 2007
  • Herta Möller, 2009
  • Alice Munro, 2013
  • Svetlana Alexievich, 2015

Though many have welcomed a woman winning the prize, there are still widespread concerns about diversity. Only one of the fifteen women authors in receipt of the ward have been women of colour – Toni Morrison.

With the Nobel committee stating before prizes were announced that diversity had been a consideration, many are disappointed that the 2018 and 2019 joint awards were given to one white woman and one white man. It’s clear there’s still a way to go before one of the most prestigious prizes for books is truly inclusive.

Image: Getty