June 8, 2018

Marian Keyes has (justifiably) taken agin the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize



2017’s Wodehouse Prize shortlist. The prize was awarded to Helen Fielding — only the second woman to win.

More controversy has emerged from this year’s Hay Festival (which we reported on last week): during her talk, best-selling novelist Marian Keyes called out the organisers of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic literature. As we reported last month, the committee decided not to award anyone the prize this year, as apparently no novel “incited the level of unanimous laughter we have come to expect.” Keyes accused the prize, which is linked to the Hay Festival, of a “sexist imbalance” — a fact apparently borne out by the fact only two women have won the award since its inception in 2000.

As Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, Keyes admitted to a “grudge” against (or, to put it in more Keyes-ian tones, “agin”) the prize — one that would appear to be justified, since, as some quick research reveals, only fifteen women have ever been nominated. As the shortlist usually consists of five or six writers, that’s a pretty shameful ratio. Marian has been putting out funny, critically-acclaimed, generous, and affecting novels for even longer than that, and she is rightly exasperated: “Say what you like about me but my books are funny. What more can I do to qualify?”

Peter Florence, one of the Wodehouse judges and the Hay Festival’s director, said that the panel “did not play the representation game” (hardly something to brag about, Peter…), and that the prizewinner was chosen regardless of gender. There is also a difference of opinion, it seems, over whether Keyes’s books have actually been entered for the prize in the first place: while Keyes’s publisher Michael Joseph insists her latest novel, The Break, was put forward, the prize committee denies having received it.

At any rate, there’s undeniably a problem here with how the publishing world and the media treat female novelists who dare to put jokes in their writing. Whereas their male counterparts are routinely lauded as geniuses for similar work, funny women, as Dolly Alderton pointed out in her Hay Festival discussion with Clemency Burton-Hill, are too easily dismissed as “frivolous.” How can we do better?

Bath Festival Artistic Director Alex Clark tweets that when rightfully-universally-adored Adrian Mole author Sue Townsend died in 2014, she suggested a new comic writing award in Townsend’s name. Perhaps, given the sorry state of Britain’s only current comic writing award, this is an idea with legs? And hey, while we’re at it, why not open it to women only? It’s an idea that’s worked for literary fiction — why not for comic writing, too? I suspect the judges would at least be able to find a winner. It might even confirm what I suspect the Wodehouse Prize judges are afraid to admit: that *whisper it* women are as funny as—if not funnier than—men…



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.