Sunday, November 1, 2009

On Gender Inequality and the Whiting Awards

I am concerned that this year only 2 out of the 10 Whiting Award Winners are women.

I demand a recount.

There’s more curious news. Look at the history of the award. In 2008, 3 out of 10 were women. In 2007, 3 out of 10 were women. In 2006, 4 out of ten were women. In 2004 and 2005, 5 out of ten were women. According to the anonymous panel, women’s writing must be declining in quality, and fairly quickly.

It cannot be emphasized enough how esteemed the award is for young and emerging writers. Everyone sees the honor as a confirmation of a long-lasting, important career. I cannot tell you the number of times in graduate school that one of my classmates would express a hope to receive the title of Whiting Award recipient. In a special-topics graduate class that focused on young writers, one of my teachers simply assigned a whole year’s roster of Whiting Award winners.

I have no problem with the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation cloaking their judges in anonymity, but I do think the significance of these awards needs to be questioned, and why exactly the Foundation may possibly be invested in keeping everything such an annoying, self-important secret.

This is how the award is described on the website:

Since 1985, the Foundation has supported creative writing through the Whiting Writers Awards which are given annually to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays. The awards, of $50,000 each, are based on accomplishment and promise. Candidates are proposed by nominators from across the country whose experience and vocations bring them in contact with individuals of extraordinary talent. Winners are chosen by a selection committee, a small group of recognized writers, literary scholars, and editors, appointed annually by the Foundation. Both nominators and selectors serve anonymously. The Foundation does not accept applications to the Writers' Program.

No doubt someone could make the claim that for a prize of this significance the selection committee shouldn’t be cloaked in anonymity. If that’s the way the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation wants to conduct itself, then by all means they should do it. Who is anyone to claim that they should do things differently? Maybe they should start their own foundation then.

But there is a larger issue at the stake: Why exactly does the selection committee seem more likely as of late to choose a man over a woman? Are the identities of the judges kept a secret because it’s essentially a men’s only club and it wants to protect itself from any accusations of sexism?

It’s scary challenging the legitimacy of the awards. Let’s face it: it’s an especially dumb idea for a woman to criticize them. You might be attacking them to someone who’s a judge. No one wants to be associated with a troublemaker. Or a sore loser. You might be passed over if you open your mouth.

And who doesn't want their art valued? But this year it seems that if you’re a woman you have a lot less of a chance.

No one can tell me that with a committee of so many reputable writers they could only find two women as worthy finalists.

With this year's lack of female recepients, this Whiting Foundation could be seen essentially a secret society that through its selection process bestows its awards on men. Because of the prestige of the award, these same men can use the award as a gateway towards something larger, further legitimizing their career. More leads to more.

This post is not meant in any way as a critique of the men who received the awards. I haven’t read most of the winners’ work. I'm sure they are amazing.

But I do mean for this post to act as an attempt to reevaluate the significance of what it means to be a winner of a Whiting. By looking at the relatively low number of female winners, the awards could be seen as a confirmation that the publishing industry and the awards committees are a fraternal system based on predictable, though no less inexcusable, gendered inequalities.

The Whiting Foundation surely chooses brilliant authors. It also knows the importance of the written word. If you’re going to possibly exclude people, and, in this case, women, don’t say it to their face. Make invisible committees. Lurk in whispers. Don't offer any rationales. At least not in writing.


  1. Thanks for posting about this. I've had many conversations with folks about this very topic. Gender is certainly a concern as is gender and race. If you look back at how many African-American *women* poets (well, I look at this since I'm a poet), have been awarded Whitings, the pickings are really, really slim. Very troubling. When I talk to folks (men) who have received these (and I do talk to them about this because of the nomination process, hoping, really, to inspire them to nominate more women and in particular women of color since they can and are asked to nominate), they seem flummoxed by my assertions. Well, more than flummoxed. Mostly we fight about it. Anyway, again, I'm happy that someone other than black women see this as a troubling trend. And I'm happy to be asked (by you!) to think more broadly about how women are represented in all of the awards, which I hadn't really been doing. Now if only the Whiting folks would get on board. Sigh.

  2. People have noticed and discussed this for many years. The first time someone mentioned it to me was about 9-10 years ago. And VERY few minority women have won it.

  3. Thanks for pointing this out, Steve. This is why I don't like "blind" panels and nominations. There are so many good new female poets each year, but it seems like only one or two get any recognition/traction.

  4. I'm thinking about the letter that was sent by a 24 prominent African American Scholars that was printed in the New York Times (Jan 24, 1988) in praise of Toni Morrison. It was successful-- Morrison did win the 1988 Pulitzer after not winning the 1987 National Book Award (both for Beloved).

    Interestingly, I've always seen the letter written about as being quite adversarial, and it's really not-- it is couched in sadness that James Baldwin died without ever having received a Pulitzer or National Book Award (which seems crazy). It doesn't suggest that any winner of the prize was undeserving, but it does suggest that people of color are overlooked when their contributions to American and International literature are undeniable.

    The Morrison/Baldwin case is perhaps easier to make since they both had achieved significant prominence. But it is a case in which writers were able to take successful action to address a wrongful exclusion.

    That being said-- how would making the selection committee not-anonymous address the exclusion of women? Would you take a different action if you knew the judges than you would take not knowing the judges? (this is a real question-- i'm not being coy or rhetorical here)

  5. On gender bias in theatre, this story from the New York Times presents a look at the difficulty in creating an inclusive literary landscape:

  6. Dear C. Dale,

    I'm going to reprint my response to your comments. It also appears on your blog. Here's what I said to you:

    "I'm probably being oversensitive, but I can't tell from your wording on this post and on my blog if you're insinuating that I'm a bit dim for not noticing the history of sexism in the Whiting Awards.

    I do a bit of research before I post something. I couldn't find any major critiques of the Whiting awards in terms of race and class. I felt from your comments that I should have known. I was embarrassed.

    So I did a little more. I couldn't really find any conversations that were recorded. I didn't look extremely hard, but again, you would think, as I'm sure you would agree, that a conversation this important would have a definite trail.

    Do all these conversations happen privately, off the record? If so, we need to ask why.

    This isn't to say I'm an excellent detective, but it is to say that perhaps this conversation needs to happen more often.

    If these observations have been made so often, then why do the awards seem as if they are actually getting worse for women?

    Unlike you, I am not a visible presence in the literary world. I don't receive many blog hits and I don't have any real life friends for the most part in the literary community. In fact, one of the things that shocks me is how little I did know about such awards. It seems like it's common knowledge who actually are the judges. And the line of inheritance may be oddly as easy to trace as say something like the Pulitzer.

    I hope you understand what I'm saying: I have no (or never had any) claim to the originality of my observation. Sometimes my blog is there simply to state the obvious. Especially when the obvious (equal opportunity for women) should be mandated.

    Maybe if enough of these conversations about gender and race occur, there will be no need to have them. We'll all act in a way that should be obvious and kind."

  7. Yes, you are being overly sensitive. I am not saying you are dim. I was just stating that I have heard this is discussions for a very long time, as in talking with people. I don't record my conversations with people. I literally meant conversations, not essays or commentary.

    As for being a visible presence in the literary world, I am not Ron Silliman.

    And as for knowing the judges, I have no idea. People make guesses and suppositions, but the Whiting does not reveal its judges, its nominators, its process. It is a prestigious award so people, of course, love to speculate.

  8. Steve,

    I never notice these awards, I don't expect them but am happy they exist and would hope they would be as unbiased as can be, which in our world often isn't very often. But it when I read these kinds of discussions that I realize I have NEVER cared about any awards. When you write about someone who you went to grad school who hoped to win one I just kind of chuckled. It's so far from my mindset about art. The entire literary establishment and its system of awards and its discourse on what is good just seem so utterly removed often from the actualities of art that quite a few years ago I realized it is all part of the same apartied system that infects everything in the United States. It is all so quiet and unseen. So I am glad you pointed this out. Perhaps other people will point it out. But what is more important is writers to stop saying, oh I wish I had one of those rewards, and rather to question what, if anything, those rewards actually mean.

    Sean Thomas Dougherty
    Writing Foundations Coordinator
    And BAD ASS performance poet
    Case Western Reserve University
    Cleveland, OH

  9. Sean--

    I love the last sentence of your response. I think that got lost in my post and I'm glad it feels like it's there again.

  10. I write anonymously here because I have been one of the Whiting Judges. I think it's wise of the Foundation to keep the judges' names private, not so that we can be a secret cabal but so that we aren't pressured by lobbyists or attacked after the fact by those who feel overlooked. Rather than permitting corruption, I'd say that the system of having anonymous judges actually works against it. And because there's a group of judges, each of whom reads all the work under consideration, it's impossible for one person to reward a colleague, friend or favored student; groups can't function that way. I believe that over time the awards should be distributed equally across a very diverse group of recipients. But to expect that each year's awardees would be equally divided among men and women is probably unrealistic; the judges will choose the work they love and can agree upon, with an eye toward fairness, and one must hope that over years inequities of distribution will be redressed. This is, after all, a foundation and a group of judges who want to HELP fine writers, all kinds of writers. That's the whole point.

  11. Mr. Daughterty, I want to tell you that I feel solidarity with your struggle. The literary establishment is fucked, and this is something I have known since I won second place in the Dos Caballos Poetry Prize at the age of 20 years old. Even with the temporary celebrity status that came with that in my college I realized that awards do not matter and it is all about the art, and the struggle of poetría. Overall, if women or Mr. Fellner care about not winning prizes, then they should use that as a motivation to be better writers.

    But Mr. Fellner has a good point. I also think it is a shame that these conversations about prizes have been held privately and off the record.
    What I propose is that we should record all conversations that we have about writing prizes in a little recording device and send them to Mr. Fellner. I'm sorry but this is the way I feel.