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Where are all the female writers and directors?

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Will Gompertz | 08:45 UK time, Tuesday, 18 May 2010

"Women don't count," I was told firmly by a high-profile novelist recently. "Blimey, don't they?" I replied, genuinely taken aback.

Kate Mosse"No, it's a very male thing," she said. "I stop writing when I've had enough, then I pour myself a drink. Why would I want to count how many words I have written?"

The insight into this particular writer's approach to her craft was being offered to me in response to a question I had posed based on the notion that John Updike wrote 3,000 words a day without fail.

I have no idea if it was true, but it was a good enough peg for me to ask the author for a daily word count.

I was puzzled by her response. How could anybody possibly sit down at a computer, spend the whole day bashing out words and then not want to count them up at the end?

It would be like being on a diet, abstaining with great discipline all week and then not wanting to step on the bathroom scales - it's a fundamental part of the process. Isn't it?

Apparently not for women. And the author in question should know, it was Kate Mosse, co-founder of the Orange Prize for Fiction.

To be fair, she was making a flippant remark not stating a fact on behalf of all female writers, but the broader point she was making, was that women think differently. This led a conversation onto female representation in the arts.

We played the Name Game: name five famous 20th Century American male artists. Easy: Warhol, Rothko, Pollock, Judd, Rauschenberg.

Now, in the same amount of time, name five famous 20th Century American female artists. Still easy? How about naming five famous male playwrights from the year 1500 to 1999?

Now name five famous female playwrights - that's anywhere in the world over 500 years; or five female composers, photographers, graphic designers or film directors.

BooksWe failed. And that's why she set up the Orange Prize for Fiction. She said it was initially in response to the Booker Prize shortlist of 1991 that didn't include any women.

This struck her and some colleagues as odd, seeing as there was plenty of quality fiction being written by women. A meeting was called in a North London flat that was attended by many of publishing's big hitters (men and women).

The group concluded that the written male voice was considered to be inclusive and neutral, while the female writer's voice was considered to be female.

What shocked the group most though, was the fact that there was no public comment made regarding the 1991 all-male shortlist. Would there, they wondered, have been no comment if the shortlist were all-female?

Five years later, in 1996, the Orange Prize for Fiction was launched, as a women-only competition. The founders figured that this was the only way to provide a platform on which a serious discussion about contemporary literature written by women could be had.

Making it a women-only prize removed the writer's gender as a consideration when judging a book for its literary merits.

Now in its 15th year, the Orange Prize is well established and has played a part in the Booker Prize's growing recognition of female writers. In the early 1990s, 11% of the Booker shortlist was female; now it is 38%.

Kate Mosse and others have helped shift perceptions about women's contribution to contemporary fiction. But what about elsewhere in the arts?

There are no female directors in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. There has only been one female winner of the Turner Prize in the past decade.

And not only are most of the UK's arts institutions currently run by men, most of them have never been run by a woman.

The arts are exciting and important because the document, challenge and shape society. So what does the current lack of recognition of female creativity say about us all in 2010?


  • Comment number 1.

    "Making it a women-only prize removed the writer's gender as a consideration when judging a book for its literary merits."

    Huh? Surely if it's "women only", then the writer's gender is the biggest consideration of all, more important than any literary merit?

    I'm not denigrating female writers (or artists of any kind) but "women only" criteria just says 'If we can't be big fish in the big pond, we can be big fish in the small pond'. Imagine the cries of 'sexism' if there were "men only" prizes....

  • Comment number 2.

    Oh dear, woefully misunderstood message about equality there interpreted by 'Graphis'. The argument that there would be uproar if men only competitions or services exist is a paper thin. They don’t need exclusive access because so many of these competitions are already men only!
    Having a gender specific competition (as with any minority, or under-represented group) gives those people a chance who ordinarily (and because of oppression) would not be in the spotlight.
    When you consider why there is such an under-representation of women in the arts and literature, how could you oppose ‘Orange Prize for Fiction’

  • Comment number 3.

    whatever their intentions are, The Orange message is that women authors don't generally write as well as the men. It would be more credible if it was awarded to a male or female author by an all women jury.

    (Oh, it is an all women jury! sorry, that makes it entirely a women's issue.)

    the women fair well in the field of photography, up with the best of them.

  • Comment number 4.

    (somewhat tongue in cheek)

    in answer to your question: "Where are all the female writers and directors?"

    Working at the BBC!

  • Comment number 5.

    Oh nonsense LBBrighton! If any "under-represented group" were actually good enough at their craft, then they'd win in a competition that includes everyone. Are you seriously suggesting that female authors weren't represented in the 1991 Booker Prize solely because they were women? Or perhaps it could have been that, in that particular year, the judges didn't think their actual books were good enough? Of course, if no-one likes your book enough to give it a prize, it must be "oppression", mustn't it?

    There are some damn fine women writers (Elizabeth Kostava, Scarlet Thomas, and A. S. Byatt are three example who I recently enjoyed) where their gender makes absolutely no difference to the story they tell. Of course, there are other women authors who write solely for women ( all that 'chick-lit' stuff). There are also male authors who seem to write exclusively for men too (i.e Andy McNabb etc), but on the whole, it seems to be women who are the most 'non-inclusive' when it comes to the arts, and the Orange Prize is yet another example of that. If you want "equality", then compete (and win) on equal terms, not form your own competitions where those you fear will beat you are excluded. Hey, let's have competitions for all authors under 5' 2", or only those born under Aquarius!

  • Comment number 6.

    Towards the end of my daughter's studies towards a double major in English and Film Theory, she decided to apply for a place on a much respected college course on film and television production. She made the mistake of asking for a reference from one of the male professors. She expected him to supply it, even though he excluded the female students from his informal mentoring sessions. He didn't "get around to" writing the reference and she had to scramble to get one at the last minute, this time from a woman.
    What can one assume from this man's attitude towards young women students who are keen to get into a career in film? So many men in influential positions such as this seem to be stuck in the 1950s.

    On the topic of the dearth of women directors in film, I believe Jodie Foster was nicknamed BLT by the male crew on her first directing job. This stood for "Bossy Little Thing". What is the blunt truth here? That misogyny runs deeper than any other prejudice? Women just have to soldier on and not let it get them down. And my daughter? She registered an official complaint against that man and yes, she was given a place on the film and television production course and then went to UEA and got an MA in Creative Writing for film and television. I commented to a similar young woman that we need more women writing intelligent lead roles for women in film. She smiled and replied that you have to write a script with mostly males roles or it just won't get anywhere. Sometimes it's hard to believe women constitute just over 50% of the population.

  • Comment number 7.

    Aye Graphis, that's a poor argument, badly made.

    It's a waste of everyone's effort trying to explain sensible responses to discrimination to people who are in full denial of that discrimination.

    There exists still a dark and destructive misogyny within the arts. Female artists are under represented and their work undervalued.

  • Comment number 8.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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