France: Where Men Have a Monopoly on Good Writing

The country’s top literary prize has been awarded to a woman 11 times—and to a man 102 times.

Pas pleurer, a French novel by Lydie Salvayre, one of the few women to have won the Prix Goncourt prize (Flickr / ActualLitté)

Are francophone women unusually mediocre writers, or is the Prix Goncourt unusually sexist? Some day, one hopes, this question will no longer surface every November when the jury members for France’s top literary prize meet in the Parisian restaurant that serves as their papal conclave. But seeing as the prize would need to be awarded to a female author for 91 years in a row at this point to reach gender parity among the pool of winners, few of us are likely to be around to see it.

To ask what’s going on here isn’t to cast aspersions on Mathias Énard, this year’s Goncourt recipient. It’s a reflection of the fact that, by the numbers, the prize’s gender gap over the past 113 years is unignorable: As of Tuesday, the Prix Goncourt has been awarded to a man 102 times, and only 11 times to a woman. That means men have received the prize 90 percent of the time.

One needn’t have a comprehensive theory of the literary capacity of the female sex to find that gender spread puzzling. In fact, the consistent gap between the Prix Goncourt’s percentages and those of literary prizes offered by other nations makes the question less about women’s singularity than France’s. (Despite theoretically being a prize for the entire French-speaking, post-imperial world, the Goncourt has overwhelmingly been won by individuals born in France; many winners come from Paris in particular.)

For example: The Man Booker Prizeuntil 2014 a prize for the best novel written by British Commonwealth citizens, before the citizenship requirement was dropped in favor of any English-language novel published in the United Kingdom—has bestowed awards on men 64 percent of the time. In the United States, the Pulitzer Prize in the novel/fiction category also has a more equitable gender breakdown than the Goncourt. In fact, by 1944, the first time the Prix Goncourt was awarded to a female author (Elsa Triolet for A Fine of 200 Francs),the Pulitzer Prize had already gone to women 12 times. German literary prizes have gender ratios that come a bit closer to the Goncourt’s. The Georg Büchner Prize has been awarded to men 86 percent of the time; the Goethe Prize, 89 percent. But the Goethe Prize isn’t a great point of comparison given that it is not exclusively awarded for literature and has been a triennial award since the 1950s. The German Book Prize, established in 2005, has actually been awarded to six women and five men.

Past Winners of Major Literary Prizes: A Gender Breakdown

This chart includes data for various literary prizes since their creation (for Prix Goncourt, since 1903; the Pulitzer for fiction, 1948; Man Booker, 1969 but excluding 2014-2015, when eligibility was extended beyond British Commonwealth citizens; and Georg Büchner, 1951). The source for Prix Goncourt data is here; the Pulitzer, here and here; Man Booker, here; and Georg Büchner, here.

Nor can the Goncourt’s gender imbalance be explained away by the age of the prize. Although the Goncourt, first awarded in 1903, is the oldest of the literary prizes just mentioned, and one might therefore attribute the gap between male and female winners to most of the Goncourt’s history taking place before the women’s movements of the 1960s and ’70s, the numbers don’t support that theory. The gap—14 men, two women—remains if one only considers winners since 2000.

In fact, if one were to rank the Goncourt, Man Booker, Pulitzer, and Georg Büchner prizes by gender parity, the rankings would be unaffected by whether the data used dates back to 2000 or each prize’s inception. The Prix Goncourt comes in last regardless. (I reached out to the Académie Goncourt for comment on the prize’s gender imbalance but have not yet received a response.)

Past Winners of Major Literary Prizes Since 2000: A Gender Breakdown

The source for Prix Goncourt data is here; the Pulitzer, here and here; Man Booker, here (excluding 2014-2015, when eligibility was extended beyond British Commonwealth citizens); and Georg Büchner, here.

This persistent pattern among the various prizes suggests something unique and relatively static about the prize-giving institutions themselves or their respective cultural contexts (perhaps even at a national level)—or both.

In the case of the Goncourt, the relative influence of these two factors is difficult to decipher: It’s worth noting that in France, the Goncourt’s stark gender disparity is not an anomaly. According to numbers crunched by the Observatoire des Inégalités in 2013, among the major French literary prizes, only the Prix Médicis and the Prix Femina—the latter established in 1904 as an explicit response to the Goncourt, with an all-female jury to counter the Goncourt’s then all-male jury—surpass the 20-percent mark for the percentage of awards going to female writers. And even the Prix Femina isn’t 50-50. Currently, the ratio is 64 awards to men versus 40 to women.

All this is surprising given how France tends to rank on gender-equity indices. In the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Global Gender Gap Index, which incorporates measures of health, political empowerment, educational achievement, and economic participation and opportunity, France lagged behind Germany but was still ahead of the United States and the United Kingdom. Although France’s ranking on the index has bounced around in recent years, the country has always appeared within the expected bounds for a Western European country. The World Economic Forum’s metrics for education and health show no gender gap in France. The country’s figures for women’s political empowerment are ahead of America’s.

Then again, one can’t necessarily expect trends in graduation rates and prenatal care to predict literary prize-winning. Creative achievement is an area where the inherent subjectivity of judging leaves results highly vulnerable to subtle, lingering stereotypes. That’s true in any country. And were an accurate international measure of such specific cultural dynamics possible, it’s not so clear France would come out on top.

While France has produced a number of giants in feminist theory, the feminism of the 1960s and ’70s arguably never went mainstream there to the extent that it did in, say, the United States. The popular perception is that French women are, if anything, more defined by notions of femininity than women in other Western nations—a good thing, numerous Anglophone self-help books would have us believe, but potentially limiting in the literary sphere. Surveys lend some credence to these perceptions. In 2014, for instance, a series of studies by the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel suggested that French television shows were largely depicting women in traditional roles. “One of the most common” stereotypes in fictional series, read a summary of the findings by the European Platform of Regulatory Authorities, “is inferiority of women in the professional field.” And “in entertainment shows, in general, gender stereotypes are very strong ... concern[ing] both men and women.”

Over time, rigidly defined gender roles can affect both the types of novels female writers produce and the way those novels are perceived—not to mention how many women choose and persist to become published novelists in the first place.

Ironically, no one understood this better than the 1954 Prix Goncourt winner Simone de Beauvoir, who five years before her prize-winning novel The Mandarins had published The Second Sex, a comprehensive and distinctly uncomfortable critique of the modern female condition. The tendency to view the male as the default category, and the female as the “other,” she argued, has implications in society at large, in terms of how women are perceived, and also in women’s own minds, in terms of how they perceive themselves. “The advantage man enjoys,” she wrote, “which makes itself felt from his childhood, is that his vocation as a human being in no way runs counter to his destiny as a male. … He is not divided.” This is not true for women, de Beauvoir argued, who to fulfill the requirements of femininity must play the passive object, the prey, and whose gender realization is thus at odds with both professional realization and personal agency. Furthermore, with the constant burden of “prov[ing] herself” to a world that doubts her, a woman is never allowed the luxury of forgetting herself, which brings “ease, dash, [and] audacity” in self-expression.

As is probably evident by now, Simone de Beauvoir thought female writers were particularly weighed down by this social-psychological burden, and went into depressing detail about how she thought this might affect the quality of their creative work.

Why does this matter? In any discussion of literary achievement, it is impossible to escape the argument that, if women have received fewer literary prizes, it might actually reflect merit, not prejudice on the part of the jurors. As a character in Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing insists while defending the superiority of his writing to a pseudo-leftist drama written by his lover’s prisoner protégé, a certain string of words “isn’t better because someone says it’s better,” or because there’s a “conspiracy” to keep certain people out of literature. Rather, “It’s better because it’s better.” It’s more effective at getting the idea across. It carries more emotional weight.

The idea of good writing as an objective truth has instinctive appeal—and in Stoppard’s play, the character espousing this viewpoint comes out of the debate ahead, until his lover starts reading his embarrassing sci-fi screenplay aloud. Hints of this sort of view were present in V.S. Naipaul’s provocative—or laughable—declaration in 2011 that he considered no pen-wielding female, including Jane Austen, his equal.

But even if “it’s better because it’s better” is a compelling ideal and a valid explanation for choosing one novel over another, de Beauvoir’s writings show it’s a fundamentally uninteresting response to the question posed by the Prix Goncourt’s gender gap. Even if one assumes gender parity among jurors (which there isn’t: the 10-person Académie includes only three women), no subconscious prejudicial response to female author names (unlikely, according to recent social-science research), and gender-neutral dynamics in the publishing world (similarly doubtful), the conclusion that women have been writing qualitatively different works than men in French hardly lets francophone society off the hook. Why is that the case? And why is that less the case in the United Kingdom?

Simone de Beauvoir did believe in certain natural differences between the sexes, along with historical, artificial ones. But she didn’t believe in innate gender disparities in the capacity for genius. That the Prix Goncourt’s track record suggests a different view should probably trouble its custodians more than it currently seems to.