Perhaps because I come from an advertising background, and because I am Christian, black, African, and female, (identity groups that have been politicized and/or marginalized in one form or another) categories don’t scare me. For better or worse, most of the boxes I tick are immediately evident, and I know from all the stats that say so that I am being sorted and filtered into an endless set of situations because of them. There are negatives associated with membership in these categories, but my experience in advertising has taught me to look at — and use — categories as an asset.
When a brand or product goes to market, it is dead on arrival if the consumer cannot immediately distinguish it from the overwhelmingly beige pool that is the mainstream. In fact, the only way to eventually go mass (and get that mass money) is to start niche. When you are niche, you can more easily connect with the people who dig your work and flow precisely because they are a manageably small group. And when you are closer to your audience, you are able to build a core tribe of loyalists that can be your ambassadors, and help extend your reach organically and authentically. It’s the difference between someone with 500 followers getting 100 likes and someone with a million followers getting 2000. Those 100 Likers are probably not on your page just to troll — they’re actually engaged.
I write this after reading Zoë Heller and Dana Stevens’ thoughtful points about the dangers of awards that only honor female authors. In separate essays in last week’s Bookends column in the New York Times, and specifically discussing the Baileys Women’s Prize, Heller writes: “I have a resistance to assessing individual shortlists on whether they include women. (If the remit of judging panels is to reward literary excellence, they should be left to do so, without fear of being rebuked for failing to ‘honor diversity.’)”
She knows “the historical disparity between the number of male and female literary prize winners is certainly worth noting”, and she knows sexism has “something to do with this” gap in ability and industry acclaim but still. “None of this strikes me, however, as a persuasive argument for regarding women’s fiction as ‘a cause’ or for giving it its own award. I hate the idea of describing any sort of fiction as a cause. It makes it sound like something virtuous but fundamentally tedious that depends for its survival on the heroic efforts of concerned citizens. The Baileys Prize gives money and brings public attention to worthy writers, but it does so at the risk of institutionalizing women’s second-class, junior-league status.”
Dana Stevens feels the same way.
“Maybe for a century or more to come, we’ll continue to need cultural spaces in which ‘women’s writing’ is protected and encouraged to flourish as something separate from ‘men’s,'” she writes. “But that same small part of me fears that the gated-off arena can too easily become a prison.”
The thing is, we’re all in one prison or another i.e. we come out of the gate gated off. This is the world we live in, because this is who we are as people.
Even as we work to change what certain categories have come to mean in our society i.e. eradicate stereotypes and educate people about those that are different than them, we haven’t yet figured out how to escape our inherent propensity to categorize in the first place. I think it’s because categories act as conscious and subconscious shortcuts that help us connect with and relate to people.
Lauren A. Rivera’s recent Times op-ed explores this idea by unpacking the term “cultural fit” which, apparently, governs the hiring decisions of 80% of employers worldwide. “…for these gatekeepers, fit was not about a match with organizational values. It was about personal fit,” Rivera explains. “To judge fit, interviewers commonly relied on chemistry. …Discovering shared experiences was one of the most powerful sources of chemistry, but interviewers were primarily interested in new hires whose hobbies, hometowns and biographies matched their own.” As a result, of course, “Selection based on personal fit can keep demographic and cultural diversity low.”
All of this is to say, literature needs Women’s Prizes, just as it needs prizes for [insert category] writers because without such prizes, those in the position to award (rich white males, for now) will consciously or unconsciously ignore them because they don’t immediately connect with their work. And as we offer these overlooked and ignored categories the platforms they have earned, we not only keep the conversation alive about why we need such prizes in the first place, we encourage our niche to keep at it too.
Finally, it’s important to note that categories are constantly shifting and mutating because people do. No one fits into any one category neatly. What lies between the boxes and outside the lines often make stories most interesting. Hopefully, if done well, these are the stories that will win the prizes.
The 2015 Baileys Prize Winner will be announced June 3rd.