Men Still Aren’t Reading Women’s Books. Can the Women’s Prize Help?

The author Kate Mosse co-founded the Women’s Prize for Fiction to shrink the gender gap in publishing. Twenty-nine years on, she says her work is far from finished.

Men Still Aren’t Reading Women’s Books. Can the Women’s Prize Help?
Illustration by Maria Corte.

If I ask you to name a handful of literary giants, which ones spring to mind first?

By any chance did you think of Virginia Woolf? How about Geraldine Brooks? Or George Eliot? Did you think of Alice Walker or Barbara Kingsolver? Edith Wharton or Toni Morrison? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Eudora Welty? 


Or was your brain already filled up with the likes of Charles Dickens and Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald?

Of course there are countless women literary giants, but no matter how brilliant, their names are not usually the first that come to mind. And therein lies the problem.

Enter the Women’s Prize

Since its inception, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which is now in its 29th year, (and the winner of which will be announced today) has aimed to correct that. It was founded not long after the 1991 Booker Prize failed to include a single woman on its shortlist. What was remarkable, Kate Mosse—the founder and director of the Women’s Prize—told me, was that nobody seemed to notice the Booker’s oversight. 

Can you imagine, Mosse asked, if the Booker Prize had released an all-female list? “Everybody would have seen it as political and deliberate.” The minute you do what Mosse refers to as the  “flip test,” it reveals how society and politics work.

In 1996, the Women’s Prize (then known as the Orange Prize) launched with an impressive £30,000 ($38,500) award that outstripped some of its competitors. (By comparison today, winners of the Pulitzer prize for fiction receive about $15,000, while the Nobel Prize for literature nets winners over $1 million.) 

As often happens with women-related initiatives, the Women's Prize was heavily criticized. It picked up the unfortunate nickname, “the Lemon Prize,” (Orange → Lemon—get it?); was labeled sexist by the author A. S. Byatt (who pointed out “you couldn't found a prize for male writers”); and was snubbed by the feminist writer Germaine Greer (who said the next thing will be a “prize for writers with red hair.”) (That prize doesn’t exist yet; I checked.) 

One outraged individual made a phone call to Mosse’s husband, and told him he “should be ashamed of me and should keep better control of me,” explained Mosse.

“There were absolutely people who objected and didn’t like it,” she said. “This was, in their minds, making women second class citizens; it was the idea that women couldn't compete in the grown-up world.”

But it never was about leaving out men—it was about making sure that women’s work was celebrated, she said.

The prize money may also have played into the disdain: It’s expected that men will receive hefty awards, but women? “I think,” ventured Mosse, “that if the prize had been £2,000, nobody would have cared or paid attention.”

Who Is Reading What

In her book “The Authority Gap,” the journalist Mary Ann Sieghart cracks open striking differences between the fiction-reading habits of men versus women. She references a somewhat “anecdotal” report from 2005 out of Queen Mary University. After questioning 100 academics, critics and writers, the researchers concluded: “Men who read fiction tend to read fiction by men, while women read fiction by both women and men. Consequently, fiction by women remains ‘special interest,’ while fiction by men still sets the standard for quality, narrative and style.” Oof.

Sieghart, hoping to get a more recent picture of the “extent to which men were failing to read books by women,” sought out experts at Nielsen Book Research in 2019, who examined sales data from 2018. “The results bore out my suspicion that men were disproportionately unlikely to even open a book by a woman,” she wrote.  

And as of 2023, the sticking point still remained: A new analysis commissioned by the Women’s Prize Trust, showed that of the bestselling female authors, fewer than 20 percent of the purchases were made by men. But of the bestselling male authors, 44 percent percent of the purchases were made by women.

Books written by men also tend to be portrayed as “weighty” compared with women’s books, which are often relegated to the “chick lit, women’s fiction or romance,” piles. Books that fall into those kinds of categories are the least likely to be reviewed or make it onto best books lists—and that translates directly into less visibility. 

In practice, a lack of visibility results in stories like this reading list of “mind-expanding books” compiled in 2022 by The London Times for the then-future prime minister. The list featured the works of 24 men, and not a single work by a woman: Not very mind-expanding if you’re overlooking the creative output of half the population. 

It was this article which, in addition to finding just three women featured among 45 total authors in the “Smart Thinking” section of a bookstore, propelled Mosse to launch a sister prize which debuts this year: The Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction. With non-fiction, there is still a very strong idea that an “expert” (with a capital “E”) is a man. The Women’s Prize is out to change that, too. 

This time around the announcement of the new prize was much less frosty. “That is, of course, wonderful,” said Mosse. “But I'm afraid it also reveals a slightly darker story, which is that, 30 years ago, there was still the idea that feminism had worked and there was equality,” she said. “Now, there is an understanding … that things in many ways for women are going backwards.”

Women Winning in Fiction

To be sure, women are producing much more fiction today than in the past. In fact, unlike in other creative fields, women have overtaken men. A study last year showed that women are now publishing over 50 percent of books in the U.S. market, and women’s books are outselling men’s. 

Why might this be? I’d wager that a large part of it is driven by the fact that U.S. publishing (once considered a “gentleman’s profession”) has evolved over the course of the 20th Century into a women-driven industry. Also, book sales in the U.S. are disproportionately driven by women. When you run the market, you know the market. 

The picture turns a little less rosy when you look at who is winning prizes. Yes, there is a clear swing toward more women winning literary awards. But it’s also clear that true parity is a long way off. Among the 80 winners of the National Book Award, for example, just 20 have been women. Since the Nobel Prize in Literature was first handed out in 1901, it has been presented to women just 17 times. The numbers aren’t good.

Nevertheless, some may argue that the Women’s Prize for Fiction has outlived its purpose. Mosse sees it differently.

“Every single prize has its drawbacks,” said Mosse. One might ask: “Is it amplifying Black voices to have a prize for Black writers? Or is it ghettoizing Black writers?” What these arguments often fail to take into account is that the default is very powerful, and it is, to most people's eyes, invisible. “There is this idea that predominantly white male writing is the neutral literary voice, and everything else is peripheral.” 

Over the course of our conversation, I asked Mosse about her slates of all-women judges: Since this award is designed to amplify books by women for all readers, why not have male judges too? Mosse didn’t miss a beat: “When we run out of brilliant women, then we will very much consider having male judges.” 

The same could also apply to the Women’s Prize. But if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of literary giants to catch up on

Francesca Donner is the founder and editor of The Persistent.

The Winners Are In...

  • The winner of the 2024 Women's Prize for Fiction is V. V. Ganeshananthan for "Brotherless Night."
  • The winner of the 2024 Women's Prize for Non-Fiction is Naomi Klein for "Doppelganger." 

The Shortlisted Titles for the 2024 Women’s Prize for Fiction 

Anne Enright — “The Wren, The Wren” | Jonathan Cape (Penguin Random House)

V. V. Ganeshananthan — “Brotherless Night” | Viking (Penguin Random House)

Kate Grenville — “Restless Dolly” | Maunder Canongate Books

Isabella Hammad — “Enter Ghost” | Jonathan Cape (Penguin Random House)

Claire Kilroy — “Soldier Sailor” | Faber & Faber

Aube Rey Lescure — “River East, River West” | Duckworth Books

The Shortlisted Titles for the 2024 Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction 

Laura Cumming — “Thunderclap” — A Memoir of Art and Life and Sudden Death | Chatto & Windus (Penguin Random House)

Naomi Klein — “Doppelganger” — A Trip into the Mirror World | Allen Lane
(Penguin Random House)

Noreen Masud — “A Flat Place” — Moving Through Empty Landscapes, Naming Complex Trauma | Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Random House)

Tiya Miles — “All That She Carried” — The Journey of Ashley's Sack, a Black Family Keepsake | Profile Books

Madhumita Murgia — “Code Dependent” — Living in the Shadow of AI | Picador (Pan Macmillan)

Safiya Sinclair — “How to Say Babylon” — A Memoir | 4th Estate (HarperCollins)