Keep the 'a' in Leacock: An Investigative Report into the Sausage Party That is the Leacock Medal for Humour

Posted on the 30 April 2015 by Jennifervillamere
Keep Leacock: Investigative Report into Sausage Party That Leacock Medal Humour
When the shortlist for the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour was announced earlier this month, I wrote an essay about gender disparity among the winners. Women have won just 6 times in 67 years.

Keep the 'a' in Leacock: An investigative report into the sausage party that is the Leacock Medal for Humour

The award is a tribute to Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock whose work is so awesome that I stole this record from my high school library. I'm not just bitching about inequality, I'm passionate about this guy and his award.

You can read the original essay here.
That essay lead to me write an article for the Toronto StarI queried 56 authors and industry insiders and subsequently interviewed 18 of them. Here is the piece in the Star.
Keep the 'a' in Leacock: An investigative report into the sausage party that is the Leacock Medal for Humour

But wait, there's more

I've uncovered the judging process:

  1. Authors, publishers and agents nominate books to the Stephen Leacock Association, which administers the award from Leacock’s muse, the town of Orillia, Ont.
  2. From there, a panel of 5 anonymous, independent judges across the country plus a local reading committee compile their top 10 lists. 
  3. Each judge has 1 vote, as does the reading committee in whole, for a total of 6 votes. 
  4. A former vice president of the Leacock Association collates the votes and determines the winner and the 4 other members of the short list.

The judges are a balance of male and female,” says Michael Hill, president of the Stephen Leacock Association. “There have probably been more women than men judging over the last 10 years.” And what about the committee? “This past year it was all female,” he says.
Available data on the Leacock Award indicates:
  • Since 2000, women have comprised 32 per cent of the nominations. 
  • Since 1983, women have made up 20 per cent of the short list. 

The gender bias isn’t evening out as society becomes more equitable. There was:
  • 1 female winner in the '40s
  • 2 female winners the '50s
  • 1 female winner the '70s
  • 1 female winner the '90s
  • 1 female winner 2013

There were no female winners in the entire decades of the '60s, '80s or '00s.
Keep the 'a' in Leacock: An investigative report into the sausage party that is the Leacock Medal for Humour

It’s time to ask the tough question: Are women just not funny?
Scientific research shows that men and women are equally humour-capable. For example, a 2009 study at Western University asked men and women to create captions for cartoons. Both genders created an equal number of highly rated captions.
I think it's a broader, system bias,” says Patricia Pearson, who was shortlisted for the award in 2004. “The jury can only judge books, and those books first have to get published, and publishers want known writers...”
The selection bias in publishing and in society takes place long before the books reach the Leacockers,” says Robert Wringham, who’s on this year’s short list.

Writers and industry insiders share their thoughts

“I have a theory that it has something to do with the fact that the award is given to a book. Canadian literature is dominated by women who invented the voice of quiet realism – think Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood. To be taken seriously in book form in this country a woman has had to be serious and my theory is that flipping the bird is not a step that women writers take easily…I’ve been around the Leacock award for many years and I see everybody cross their fingers whenever a woman appears on the short list. It’s like watching the Maple Leafs. Will this be the year?” - Dan Needles, shortlisted in 1990 for Letters from Wingfield Farm and in 2006 for Wingfield's Hope: More Letters from Wingfield Farm, 2003 winner for With Axe and Flask: A History of Persephone Township From Pre-Cambrian Times to the Present
"The fact is that this isn't just a problem with the Leacock Prize. This lack of award recognition (in addition to a lack of critical recognition in the form of reviews) has been an unrecognized and under-reported issue for a long time. It's taken the hard work of organizations like CWILA (in Canada) and VIDA (in the US) to undertake the difficult task of empirically calculating (and hence proving) this sort of gender disparity actually exists. Because a light has finally been shone upon this issue, the situation is now, in some cases, is finally improving. (See the VIDA and CWILA websites for their yearly reports on improvements.) "This disparity is one of the reasons I started the Rosalind Prize. (And it is also one of the reasons that the UK Women's Prize for Fiction was started by Kate Mosse more than twenty years ago. At the time, the Man Booker Prize had no women on it's shortlist, effectively saying that no work by a woman was worthy of award consideration that year.) "Starting the Rosalind Prize and celebrating the writing of women authors is one way of starting a conversation and asking questions about what's going on.

"You can't force jurors to put women on a shortlist, but the prize can raise awareness and invite discussion...The ultimate goal of the Rosalind Prize isn't just about handing out awards: it's about economic empowerment and creating a financial impact for women writers. When women's novels are reviewed or nominated, author profiles are raised, books sell more copies, royalties and advances increase and their audiences are enlarged."

- Janice Zawerbny, Senior Editor, House of Anansi Press. Established the Rosalind Prize to counter gender imbalance in Canadian literary awards.
“I think it's a broader, system bias though. The jury can only judge books, and those books first have to get published, and publishers want known writers, so newspaper and magazine editors would first have to recruit funny female writers. Why didn't anyone ever solicit Sandra Shamas to write a column?” - Patricia Pearson, shortlisted in 2003 for her novel, Playing House
“I think there's a bias favouring men at large in society and male authors in publishing … The bias has manifested itself in literature as the male voice being accepted as a normal or universal perspective, positioning the feminine as some kind of deviation from that norm or as a "perfectly valid alternative."” - Robert Wringham, shortlisted in 2015 for A Loose Egg
“Why hasn’t someone like Miriam Toews won? I can’t explain it. It is indeed weird… The best funny book should win. Gender shouldn’t enter into it.” - Trevor Cole, 2011 winner for Practical Jean
“I’m surprised by the numbers, quite frankly. There are many, many funny female writers out there.” - Aaron Bushkowsky, shortlisted in 2015 for Curtains For Roy
“I remember being told that very few women were nominated even. There is something weird about the set-up. Good old boy judges, maybe? … Maybe the old boys of Orillia don’t find women funny. I think they prefer the kind of yuck-chuckle good ol’ country-style laugh, Stuart Maclean-style.” - Susan Musgrave, shortlisted in 1995 for Musgrave Landing and in 1990 for Great Musgrave
“Maybe women just don't do "funny". But I don't think so… It's very difficult being a feminist and funny because so much of the world and the ongoing relationship of women in it isn't funny, especially in developing countries…Perhaps, the tough, unforgiving, hard-hitting core of the best female humour, (even if it is astutely camouflaged, trickily softened) may not suit what I think is the innocuous ethos of the Leacock Award, which is fascinating because Leacock's own humor was unsparingly mocking.” - Eve McBride, shortlisted in 1996 for Dandelions Help
“It is troubling that so few women have won over the years. We know that each book is judged on its merits without reference to anything other than the words on the pages. I suspect the paucity of women winners is at least partially, if not largely, a reflection of gender inequality in society in general. While we have come a long way in the last century or so, we remain a long way from women's equality in almost every facet of life. “ - Terry Fallis, 2008 winner for The Best Laid Plans, shortlisted for The High Road in 2011, Up and Down in 2013 and for No Relation in 2015
The Secret Lives of Litterbugs (2009) and The World Afloat (2014) were both submitted upon invitation, that is, board members from the Leacock Association urged me to have my publisher submit after I had given readings at the Leacock Summer Festival in 2009 and 2014.  None of my books have been shortlisted.  It’s always the same books that are nominated.  By same, I mean...  a certain kind of feel-good humour, like Leacock’s... - MAC (Marion) Farrant, two-time nominee
Being hilarious means a girl has been out in the world observing, commenting, interacting with and challenging it. This is still an impossible notion for a lot of sexist people. They can’t accept that women are more than just an audience for men but are climbing up on stage too. I can’t count the amount of times men told me growing up that women aren’t funny; it was hostile and insulting and really damaging. The Leacock Award isn’t reflecting the contributions that women are making in humor writing right now. Have you seen the bestseller lists lately? And there is a whole fleet of young outrageously funny Canadian female essayists who are about to make that sort of thinking obsolete in the next decade.” - Heather O’Neill, shortlisted for the 2007 Governor General's Award for Lullabies for Little Criminals, shortlisted for the 2014 Giller Prize for The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
“I think the problem, if it is a problem, is that to date, women simply do not write as much humor as men. I can think of no reason for this, for are men not more worthy of humorous criticism than any other life form?” - W.P. Kinsella, 1987 winner for The Fencepost Chronicles, shortlisted in 1990 for The Miss Hobbema Pageant, in 1992 for Box Socials and in 1996 for The Winter Helen Dropped By
“It’s a curious phenomenon, the ole Leacock franchise.”
- Arthur Black
, 1997 winner for Black in the Saddle Again, 2000 winner for Black Tie and Tales, 2006 winner for Pitch Black, shortlisted in 1988 for Back to Black, in 1990 for That Old Black Magic, in 1994 for Black by Popular Demand, in 2005 for Black and White and Read All Over and in 2014 for Fifty Shades of Black

Now it's time to read this stuff:
  • BREAKING NEWS: National treasure Heather O'Neill and that guy from WireTap are no longer a thing
  • The Steven and Chris Drinking Game
  • I thought Periscope was the social media network where Chris Hadfield would finally drop trou. So far: Nerp

Keep Leacock: Investigative Report into Sausage Party That Leacock Medal Humour

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