The Orange prize is a sexist prize […] You couldn’t found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in. It’s honourable to believe that – there are fine critics and writers who do – but I don’t.
In 2008, novelist Tim Lott also claimed that the Orange Prize was sexist. His argument is based on the fact that women sell more books and to a largely female market, which makes the prize “unfair”:
Could the establishment of a men-only prize, with men-only judges, be justified given their level of relative exclusion in schools and the marketplace? Can you imagine the derision with which it would rightly be met?
Woman’s place in the respected literary canon has been a thing of controversy since women began writing. It started even before the publication of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in 1929, and long before the wave of feminist criticism in the 1970’s, with the Brontes, Jane Austen and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who metaphorically writes about the difficulties facing women writers in her short story The Yellow Wallpaper.
The Orange Prize is no stranger to controversy. In 2008, the appointment of Lily Allen as a judge, resulted in questions over the ‘seriousness‘ of the award. There is no doubt that Lott and Byatt will face criticism over their comments, but I wonder, does they have a point?
Having a ‘no-men-allowed’ award negates the progress that women writers and feminist theorists have achieved in the past 100-or-so years. It says: “you’re writing isn’t quite good enough to be worthy of a Man Booker prize BUT here’s a special award just for you.” Surely if women writers want to be regarded as equals to their male counterparts, then they should aim to be judged alongside them.
Womens writing is slowly achieving recognition and The Orange Prize may soon become irrelevant and dated. Only last year, Carole Anne Duffy became the first woman to be awarded the prestigious poet Laureate title. She too recognises the struggle women have faced in becoming part of the literary canon. On a Radio 4 interview after her appointment, she acknowledged:
The decision was purely because they hadn’t had a woman […] I look on it as recognition of the great women poets we now have writing, like Alice Oswald.
Things are changing. Do we really need a women-only award to make contemporary female authors feel good about themselves? Of course we don’t, but the industry does. The Orange Prize isn’t about recognition or achievment, its about marketing.
Yet, there are positive elements of this award that are progressive. For one, it recognises female authors from around the world, which is brilliant. Writers like Nawal El Saadawi, imprisoned and exiled for her writing and lectures about female oppression, might finally be recognised. Furthermore, the prize awards a welcome £30,000 to the winner; authors don’t receive the six-figure sums they once did.
I’m all about raising awareness of womens writing, I just think that there are more intelligent ways of doing it.
Byatt does say a few things that I disagree with. She suggests that women who write intellectually challenging fiction are seen as “unnatural” by critics, making it harder for them to become accepted in the literary world. I disagree, although literary fiction is still male dominated, there are plenty of challenging reads written by intelligent women, from the Victorian greats to the likes of Jackie Kay, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. I often find it harder to accept those women who write the complete opposite of intellectually challenging fiction: romantic, whimsical garbage.
The 2011 shortlist for The Orange Prize for Fiction was announced today (12th April):
Emma Donoghue – Room
Aminatta Forna – The Memory of Love
Emma Henderson – Grace Williams Says it Loud
Nicole Krauss – Great House
Tea Obreht – The Tiger’s Wife
Kathleen Winter – Annabel