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.