Helena Janeczek won the Strega Prize, Italy’s biggest literary prize, on Thursday night. The last time a woman won was in 2003, fifteen years ago. Janeczek, who was born and raised in Germany by a Polish family, writes passionately about history and how hard it is to pin down the truth. The book that won the prize, La ragazza con la Leica, is a work of nonfiction about Gerda Taro, the young woman photographer who died in the Spanish Civil War just before her twenty-seventh birthday.
Women were well represented on this year’s long list and short list, and excitement brewed that a woman might win. Before the award ceremony, the feminist intellectual and author Loredana Lipperini wrote that voters shouldn’t treat this as a token #MeToo win. The day before the ceremony, I got on the phone with Janeczek, who was my favorite in the short list, and asked her if she felt that this year was going to be different.
She had already noticed some change last year, she told me, before the prize’s gender-imbalance problem became part of the mainstream conversation. “Last year [the major publisher] Mondadori brought Teresa Ciabatti’s book to the prize,”she pointed out. Ciabatti came in second place and her weird, prickly memoir, La più amata, was a success. “I could feel that the committee sensed the importance of the issue,” Janeczek said, adding that a female journalist had recently complained to her about the public conversation on the number of women in the running for the prize, saying, “Oh, we don’t want quote rosa … ” “Pink quotas” is the traditional, sexist way we refer to quotas for women. The fight for equal representation of Italian women is still dismissed by many as a way to demand undeserved recognition. Many women feel like that journalist. Prestige and success are perceived as a hard science, not as a fluid changing matter of discourse. Hence Janeczek’s baffled reaction: “I don’t know what she means. It’s not as if publishing were a traditionally male field! It’s not the military aviation, where you’ll have a hard time finding women! We have plenty of women here. They are editors and readers. We only need to pay a little more attention.”
Before Janeczek won the prize, her fellow short-list nominee Lia Levi had won the Strega Giovani, the prize awarded by young voters. “She looked stunned when she heard she’d won. That’s beautiful. The result contradicts every sort of idea of a ‘winner.’ An eighty-six-year-old lady who wins with a book on 1938 and the fascist Race Laws and has a female protagonist who’s an utterly inadequate mother … I love that she won. I love that such a book and such an author can find an audience.”
The Strega Prize is a unique spectacle whose biggest night takes place in a villa on the outskirts of Rome’s Villa Borghese. The bickering over the buffet and the whispers of gossip are peerless and the scene gives off vibes straight from Paolo Sorrentino’s hit La grande bellezza. This prize’s tradition is steeped in the literary dolce vita: conceived as World War II ended to reunite intellectuals in the capital, it is the product of a culture of salons. The jury comprises four hundred publishing people called the Amici della Domenica, Sunday Friends—and it has brought to light great books and great intrigue. The prize is so controversial that its founder, Maria Bellonci, herself a distinguished author of historical novels, called the prize La polveriera, the “powder keg,” and its current director, Stefano Petrocchi, wrote a novel about the prize under the same title. Its enemies consider it a place where big publishers play dirty, bluntly asking the Amici for their votes to make a book a best seller.
The prize has been awarded to some of our best authors—Primo Levi, Goffredo Parise, Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, Ennio Flaiano, Umberto Eco. And it keeps doing it now, with recent awards going to Walter Siti, Edoardo Albinati, and, among the Italian writers U.S. readers might know, Domenico Starnone, Edoardo Nesi, Nicola Lagioia (who won over Elena Ferrante), and the English PEN Translators Award winner Paolo Cognetti.
After this year’s Strega long list came out in mid-April, the national paper La Repubblica published an op-ed pointing out a surreal lesser-known fact about the prize. The feminist activist and writer Maddalena Vianello wrote that “since its inception, the Strega Prize has only had ten women winners” in seventy-one editions. “We shouldn’t forget that it was invented by a woman.”
Although it awarded greats like Elsa Morante, Natalia Ginzburg, Anna Maria Ortese, the last woman to win was Melania Mazzucco, in 2003. The facts in the article were drawn from research by Fondazione inGenere, which monitors the gender imbalance of the prize. InGenere found that the Strega Prize “works as a multiplier of copies sold (by up to 5 times) and guarantees a long stay on the bestseller lists … Only the winners get this big a benefit.” Since the feminist wave in the seventies, long lists and short lists have increasingly featured women, and yet there’s been no increase in the rate of women winners. “In climbing the ladder, women hit the so called ‘glass ceiling.’ They are pulled back by cultural and positional resistance. These invisible barriers are apparently unbreakable and independent on the actual qualities of women.” This data-based take on the matter is refreshingly clear and helps question the Italian male intellectual’s mindset.
Stefano Petrocchi, the current director of the Strega, told me it was the first time in twenty-plus years that women outnumbered men on the short list. “The long list with six women and six men simply happened. It fell in our laps. We saw the number and felt it was good.”
I asked if he felt the new feminist wave and the #MeToo tide had influenced the result. His reply surprised me: “We changed the format to have a more open process.” Usually a committee of fewer than fifteen people select from a list of books that are brought in by the Amici della Domenica. Up until last year, you needed two Amici to present a book to the committee, which then formed the twelve-book long list. “Beginning this year, all it takes to present a book is one single Amico della Domenica. We wanted the Committee to get a better, wider look at what was being published. In the past years, we’ve come to empirically discover that less obvious books might not get in because they can’t find a second Amico to vote for them.” This year, forty-one books were presented to the committee by the Amici. It used to be less than thirty on average. “I feel that having more choice has helped women get in the long list.”
So maybe the cold approach—numbers and rules—can have very human consequences. InGenere published a study on the 2018 Turin Book Fair (with whom they partner), while it was taking place this past May. Apparently the biggest room at the fair (600 people) only hosted 20 percent of women panelists. That rose to 28 percent for rooms in the range of 200 to 350 seats. For 60 to 150 rooms, 35 percent. A healthier 40 percent for rooms with less than 50 seats. The disparities are so evident, when shown numerically, that there is exhilaration simply to writing them down. I need to add that, as a part of the editorial committee, I was hosting more than ten events and I only ever introduced one author: incidentally, that’s Helena Janeczek, and that was in one of the small rooms.
The fair’s editorial committee took it in stride and announced a more careful balance in next year’s fair. But the struggle continues. The author Michela Murgia is playing with the notion with her popular Twitter hashtag #solomaschi, meaning “only males.” She’s been posting page one of La Repubblica and Il Corriere della Sera regularly, circling the bylines. Page ones are often men only, and men’s bylines are the overall astounding, embarrassing majority.
Some people simply hadn’t noticed, of course—but now they might.
Francesco Pacifico is the author of The Story of My Purity and Class, which was named a New York Times book of the year.