Are men better fiction writers than women? The lists of past winners of three major national book awards might make you think so. English major Savannah Lambert, C’18, is using digital technology to learn more about why books by women (and about women) are less likely to win awards.
In 2016, Lambert took the class Novel of the Year with James English, John Welsh Centennial Professor of English, who was chairing the committee that awarded that year’s National Book Award for fiction. “I became really interested in this project because, as much as some might argue that awards are silly or that no one can objectively say ‘What is good literature?,’ these awards are important and they do make a difference in an author’s sales after he or she wins,” she says. “What does that say about the kinds of voices we value?”
With English as her advisor, Lambert is looking at three major U.S. awards—the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle award—between 1990 and 2016. “I’m trying to keep it contemporary,” she says. “If I looked back further, people might say, oh, well, of course women didn’t win as often—it was the ‘60s. This shows that this inequality hasn’t gone away.”
In those 27 years, men won 60 percent of the three awards. Lambert used Python, an open-source programming language, to look at the text of the books to see if there were any objective differences between male and female authors, such as numbers of adjectives used. “I really didn’t find any significant difference based on gender, which I think in itself says something.”
Her findings showed that not only do women win these awards less frequently, but that books by women and men are less likely to win if they focus on women or girls as the main characters, leading Lambert to call her project Discount for Girls.
In addition to charting the gender of the protagonists, she found that in the short lists of finalists, the author’s gender tended to match the protagonist’s. Books written by women that actually win the award, however, tend to focus on male characters—a split that doesn’t exist for the male authors.
Lambert is also examining the genders of the members of the committee which chose each year’s award. “It is hard to look at many different aspects of the judging process, just because you don’t see what goes on behind the scenes,” she says. But her analysis of the National Book Award so far shows that when the committee is male-majority, the books that have won tended to be written by men. When the committee is female-majority, there’s an equal balance between novels written by men and women.
As Lambert continues to work on her thesis this year, possible next steps include looking at the point of view of a novel—whether it’s in first- or third-person, and whether that correlates with the author’s gender. Beyond that, she wants to do case studies of a few “particularly salient” years. “I’m thinking about choosing a year when it seemed like a really strong novel by a woman was going to win and then didn’t win, and why that happened,” says Lambert. “It’s hard to choose those novels because then I’m playing into the same system of value designation that I’m criticizing, but that’s the next step for me to figure out.”
Ultimately, she says, “I would never claim that there’s a single definitive cause of the gender gap we’re seeing among award winners, but my findings could provide one telling explanation for a certain gendered bias or trend we see. The first step is just pointing out what the issues are.”
To read about James English’s experience with the National Book Awards, check out "Three Questions: Judging the National Book Award."