Last Year, The National Book Award Winners Were All Men. This Year, Most Are Women.

“The literary establishment ... remains so reluctant to acknowledge their achievement.”

Literature has long been a male-dominated field — like so many others — but the tides might be changing at long last. Three of the four 2017 National Book Award winners honored last night, November 15, are women.


Jesmyn Ward won the Fiction prize for her book Sing, Unburied, Sing — a story about a biracial boy and his Black mother meeting his White father upon the father's release from prison — making Ward the first woman to win the category twice.

"You looked at me, at the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my black, my Southern children, women and men — and you saw yourself," Ward said in her acceptance speech, according to The Muse.

Robin Benway won the award for Young People's Literature for her book Far From the Tree, a tale of an adopted young woman who journeys to find her biological family after putting her own child up for adoption. In her speech, she thanked her grandmother for advising her not to wait for inspiration to strike but to work persistently.

The Non-Fiction award went to Masha Gessen, author of the book The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Claimed Russia. "I never thought a Russia book could actually be longlisted or shortlisted for the National Book Award," she told the audience. "But of course things have, um, changed."

And finally, the sole male winner was Frank Bidart, who won the Poetry category for his book Half-Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016. "Few writers have so willingly ventured to the dark places of the human psyche," his publisher said of the book, "and allowed themselves to be stripped bare on the page with such candor and vulnerability."

In fact, the proportion of female finalists is the exact same: 15 of the 20 finalists were women.

The news comes just one year after all four 2016 National Book Awards winners were male, a statistic that seemed to dismay even National Book Foundation Executive Director Lisa Lucas. "Wow," Lucas tweeted a year ago today. "4 dudes."

Following last year's ceremony, Quartz tallied the gender ratio in eight prestigious literary prizes from around the world and found that women represented only 25 percent of fiction winners at the National Book Awards. The inequality is even more evident Spain's Cervantes Prize, for which only 10 percent of winners have been female. And even in the most gender-equal award in that list of eight, the Man Booker Prize, women only comprise 35 percent of winners.

Whether these statistics reflect sexism, unconscious biases, or structural inequity, at least the public seems to understand that female authors tell stories as well as their male counterparts, if not better. In BBC Culture's poll of the 100 greatest British novels, eight of the top 10 were written by women. (The U.K. is also home to the Women's Prize for Fiction.)

"The problem has never been that Britain's female authors aren't producing powerful, meaningful works of towering originality, intellectual heft, and lasting emotional resonance," BBC Culture's Hephzibah Anderson said of those results.

"The problem is that the literary establishment, even now, remains so reluctant to acknowledge their achievement." 

Perhaps these latest National Book Award winners signify the establishment is beginning to change worldwide.

Cover photo via JesmimiWikimedia Commons

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