Canadian women's literary prize could be created by 2014

It has been two weeks since Janice Zawerbny floated the idea of a women's literature prize for Canada and the outpouring of support she's received has been so great she believes she may be handing out the first prize by 2014.

Idea of prize for women writers caught fire after proposal by editor Janice Zawerbny

It has been two weeks since Janice Zawerbny floated the idea of a women’s literature prize for Canada and the outpouring of support she’s received has been so great she believes she may be handing out the first prize by 2014.

Zawerbny, editorial director at Thomas Allen Publishers said she was convinced of the need for a prize by a Women in Literature panel at the Vancouver Writers Festival and by the "shocking" evidence of disparity in treatment of women writers from one panel member, academic Gillian Jerome.

So although equal numbers of women writers and male writers publish books in Canada, women are much less likely to get their work reviewed and much less likely to win prizes, according to the research presented by Jerome.

"What she found was a very serious gender disparity in terms of underrepresentation of women writing in Canada It’s a disparity I wasn’t aware of," Zawerbny said in an interview with CBC’s Q cultural affairs show.

So while there are three women among the five finalists for the Giller Prize this year, women have made up only 34 per cent of the winners since it was established. Among Man Booker winners, only 35 per cent are women and in the 108 years since the establishment of the Nobel Prize for Literature, only 12 women have won.

There is also much less likelihood of having a book reviewed for women writers, Zawerbny said.

"Women are the majority of people who buy books and the majority who read books,and men and women write an equal number of books in this country, so why are women winning a third of the prizes of men and getting a third of reviews," she asked.

Zawerbny believes the prize she proposes would "elevate women’s writing and the profile of women writers in this country."

She argues the U.K.’s Orange Prize has had an impact by moving women writers into the mainstream. The Orange Prize, launched in 1996, awards a £30,000 ($48,000 Cdn) prize to a woman writer.

Zawerbny proposes calling her prize the Rosalind Prize, after a strong Shakespearean heroine in As You Like It.

She says the idea has caught fire online and throughout Canada and she has already had sponsors step forward. The next step is to set up an organizing committee.

"I may be idealistic, but I’d think a year to organize and set up sponsorship and have the first prize happen in 2014," she told Q.

Zawerbny dismissed critics who say women are already dominant in fiction and do not need a separate prize and those who fear that a women’s fiction prize would lead to marginalization of women writers.

"This prize that celebrates women’s fiction doesn’t create a pink ghetto, I think it’s completely the opposite," she said. "I actually think such a prize is inclusive because it brings women into the fold, it brings them into the mainstream."