The announcement of a prize for women writers in the USA and Canada, the Carol Shields Prize for Fiction, has attracted much attention for two reasons. One, the prize money is very large (150,000 Canadian dollars for the winner alone), next only to the Nobel Prize. And two, the prize is exclusively for women writers.

Melinda Gates, who has donated 250,000 Canadian dollars for this prize said, “Throughout history women have been writing profound groundbreaking books. Yet often they earn less, are reviewed less frequently and are overlooked for awards.” She hopes that with this prize women writers “will get the attention and prestige they deserve”. Carol Shields herself, after whom this Prize is named (she died in 2003), had declared her intention to “write away the invisibility of women”.

Will the prize make a difference as the donor, Melinda Gates and the co-founders Susan Swan and Janice Zawerbny hope? Will women’s writing get a fillip from this large prize? It can’t be denied that prizes and awards do make a difference. As a result of the visibility that a prize confers on an award-winning book, sales may be larger, and there will be greater chances of acceptance from publishers in the future.

The prize money gives a writer the freedom to write without the constant anxiety of money. Writers, let’s remember, spend years writing a novel. Whatever that novel earns, if it earns anything at all, has to sustain the author until the next novel is complete. This, unless one has a steady job, which brings on its own pressures. Or unless one is supported by a spouse or partner, which too comes with its own problems.

What women writers are up against

The record for when it comes to literary prizes and awards is very dismal. “Statistics,” says Francine Prose, a writer, “outdo one’s grisliest paranoias”. The convoluted history of an earlier women-only prize tells the story of what women’s writing prizes are up against. The idea of this prize was conceived in the UK in the nineteen-nineties, following a Booker Prize shortlist of only male authors. The prize, meant only for women, was to promote “excellence, originality and accessibility”.

Mitsubishi was to be the sponsor, but they dropped out even before the first award was given. A new sponsor, Orange, took over and it became the Orange Prize for Fiction. There was a small break when it became the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Later, Orange, too, withdrew support and for a year it became just the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the sponsors being “private benefactors”.

With Bailey Irish Cream coming forward next as sponsors, it became the Bailey Prize for Women’s Writing. Recently, Bailey opted out and now it is the Women’s Prize for Fiction again, funded by “family sponsors”, whatever and whoever that means.

Apart from this tortuous and stuttering history, the prize has had more than its due share of criticism. It was called discriminatory and sexist. Nobody can deny that the prize is sexist. But sexism is one way of fighting sexism. And I find it most amusing that sexism, which has been almost a credo of male thinking through the ages, is suddenly discovered to be wrong.

It’s not just men, even women writers like Antonia Byatt disapproved of a women-only prize. Judges of the Orange Prize too, unforgivably, have themselves spoken critically of the Prize, one of them saying that British women’s novels were domestic “in a piddling kind of way”.

Yet the fact is that many books which won this women’s prize and some of the short-listed ones have been excellent novels, books that would stand out in any list. I myself have enjoyed and admired Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Lionel Shriver’s We Have to Talk about Kevin, Marilynne Robinson’s Home, Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces – all of which have won the Women’s Prize.

Their shortlists have included Hilary Mantel, Anne Tyler, Helen Dunmore, Barbara Kingsolver and so on. And yet, this prize has never achieved the stature,or the aura of the Booker. There is no one waiting with bated breath for an announcement of the shortlist, or the name of the winner. In fact, I am sure there many who are unaware of the very existence of this prize.

Small themes and big themes

It has long been recognised, hopefully by many, that the fact that few women have won prizes and awards, is not connected to the quality of their writing, but because male writing has become the standard of good writing. This is very natural, because men have been writing for many more years than women.

Things have changed in the last few decades, and we can now truly say that both women and men have written bad, as well as good, or excellent novels. Yet the idea that women’s novels have smaller themes, that women write of domestic, family and other trivial issues, continues to hold sway in the world of literature. Ironically, when a male author writes of the family, it becomes “microhistory”, as a critic dubbed Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The same critic also added, “nobody writes about the family like Franzen does”.

Hello, I want to call out, haven’t you even heard of Anne Tyler? Her Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, a story of a dysfunctional family, sends shivers down my spine. Novels located in families are not dealing with small issues. The family is the first place where humans learn about human emotions, it is the place where feelings, good or bad, are most honestly revealed, it is where the greatest love is evoked and, at times, the fiercest hate.

As for small themes and big themes, the struggle of human beings to live, to cope with life and its million challenges, to make sense of human relationships – these are themes that have inspired most writers, male or female. One does not need to write of war, political issues, or of national affairs to give the writing greater gravitas.

Sexism is both deep-rooted and pervasive. At its least offensive, it emerges in statements like, “I don’t read women’s novels.” At its worst it can be clearly seen in one of the often-quoted criticisms made by Normal Mailer, an American writer, which shows that the bias against women’s writing comes out of, and has gone hand in hand with, a derogatory opinion of women themselves. Mailer’s words are worth quoting even today.

“...the sniff I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquille in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and still born.”

Phew! In spite of some words which are, I must admit, incomprehensible to me, I get his drift: Women’s writing is terrible, as terrible as women themselves. Not surprising that Ursula le Guin, an American writer whom I discovered, sadly, very late in life, called it “the vexed issue of gender in literature”.

Denigrating women’s writing

Melinda Gates spoke of how enabling women to tell their stories is a means of empowering them. It tells women – your lives are important. It’s true that fiction gives all human lives importance, it gives dignity to an individual life, whether ordinary or extraordinary, whether male, female, child or adult. It recognises that each human is central to herself or himself, that every single story of a human is part of the entire tapestry of human history. Ursula le Guin calls fiction “the only guide to the country we are visiting – life.” When women’s writing is downgraded, when it is omitted, the guide is no longer as useful because it remains incomplete.

With so much stacked against women’s writing, will the Carol Shields Prize make any difference? Will it be able to lift women’s writing out of the sludge of insignificance and triviality? Will the large amount of prize money redeem their writing from insignificance? Sadly, ideas denigrating women’s writing have been around for too long, they are too prevalent to disappear overnight.

Kamila Shamsie, the Pakistani writer, wrote of a seminar on American fiction which had only one woman on the panel, and during which no woman writer was referred to, except Eudora Welty. This, when America has a long and distinguished list of women writers: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Mary McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, Marilynne Robinson and so on. And I don’t even speak of the poets.

The point is not whether there are good women writers, but whether their work can be read without the writing being presumed to be inferior only because of gender. Without being considered marginal because of the presumed insignificance of women’s lives.

Many many years ago, I was invited by a small group of Kannada women writers to attend their monthly meetings. I dropped out after two meetings because I felt out of place, not having read Kannada literature. But to be honest, what troubled me more was that I did not believe in dividing literature into two categories: male and female. Sensing this, the women said that the only way they could find a place on the literary map was by becoming a sub-group; they would never find a place in the general pool.

This group went on to become a large organisation, with office bearers, annual conferences, government grants and all the rest of it. Yet, a decade later, when I went to an event organised by them during which a woman writer was to be given an award, I was aghast to hear the chief guest, a man, who was to give away the award, say of the winner, “She is very good, she does not write like a woman, she writes like a man.” (Has nothing changed since they praised George Eliot, for having a “man’s brain”?)

Much later, I read a paper by Suraj Jacob and Vanamala Vishwanatha (What do the Numbers Say?) which looked at the number of women in Indian awards. The authors revealed that only 8% of the Sahitya Akademi awards have gone to women. An even more curious finding was that while caste domination ended quite early, gender domination lingered; it was only in 2004 that a woman first got the literary award given by the Karnataka State!

Why was I not surprised? Because we had seen in the American Presidential election that even colour prejudice, such an incendiary subject in the US, could be overcome and Barack Obama could become the President. But Hillary Clinton, a white woman, not only failed, she was reviled and abused.

In search of dignity and prestige

I have to invoke Ursula le Guin yet again. “There is no more subversive act,” she says, “than the act of writing from a woman’s experience with a woman’s judgement”. A very important statement, because both a woman’s experience and a woman’s judgement have been regarded as not weighty enough to produce great literature. Ursula le Guin questions that, she makes women’s experience and women’s judgement into something positive.

My own fear about the Carol Shields Prize is that, while attention will be focussed on one book, or rather five books, because the four short-listed writers also get a share of the prize money, women’s writing in general will continue to be a side show. The large amount of prize money will assure publicity, but will it achieve the more important objective of the prize, of giving dignity and prestige to women’s writing? I have my doubts.

In the last few decades, we have seen women writers of great literary stature – Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson and many more. (I speak only of writing in English because it is the world I know best.) I also see that young woman writers are more confident, they cope more efficiently with agents, publishers, promotion and publicity than I ever could. But all is still not well. If it was, if women writers no longer had to put up with what earlier writers did, why then have some literary women and a philanthropist come together to institute a prize for women?

Hermoine Lee, in her biography of the writer Penelope Fitzgerald, says of her that “she did not expect success, but she knew her own worth.” I think it was this way for women writers of my generation. Success was beyond our reach; but for us, for me, it was success enough to keep writing despite denigration, despite being snubbed, despite my writing being down-sized. Success enough to be able to believe in the dignity of my work, in spite of all the patronising and the condescension. What kept me going was that I knew the worth of my writing.

Winifred Holtby, an English writer, said she looked forward to a time when the word feminism would not be needed. So do I look forward to a future when there will be no category called “women’s writing”; there will only be writing.