Sexism and The Orange Prize

AS Byatt caused a bit of a stir at the Edinburgh Fringe when she criticised The Orange Prize, a prestigious literary award that is given only to women. The Guardian quoted her as saying:

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


What do you think, is The Orange Prize progressive or regressive? And does the book world need prizes like this?

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6 thoughts on “Sexism and The Orange Prize

  1. I can’t make up my mind. On the one hand I think it does give the suggestion of women not being good enough to win the big “men” prizes so this prize is for them.

    On the other hand, it probably is true that women authors do not get the recognition they deserve. This prize will certainly help with that.

    • Thanks for commenting Judith!

      It is an interesting debate (although it can ruffle a few feathers), love to hear other peoples opinion on this one. I’ve always taken a keen interest in womens writing and feminism. We bang on about equality, and yet happily accept gender restricted awards.

      It’ll be interesting to see who wins! Room missed out on the Man Booker Prize.

  2. Great post. I’m not sure what to think of the Orange Prize – I’m insulted by the idea that women need their own prize (like you say, shouldn’t female writers be judged alongside their male counterparts?) but glad that they’re receiving some recognition, since it often does seem to be men who receive the most attention in literary circles.

    i started writing this comment hours ago and left this window open in hopes that i would come up with some conclusive thoughts on the prize, but, agghhh. my feelings on the prize are so mixed, and i would so rather see the finalists for this prize be finalists for a prize that both male & female writers are considered for…and then, if they win, not have that story be second to the story of the male writer (franzen vs. egan) NOT winning.

    • I know what you mean! I can easily convince myself into favouring both sides of the argument.

      You’re definitely right about women not receiving enough recognition in literary circles. I’d argue that it is still male dominated. Yet, simply ‘creating’ a prize just for women will never solve that problem. I think Germaine Greer came out and said that we may as well have a prize for red headed authors to at this rate.

      At the same time I appreciate that in the short term, it does the job as far as book sales etc, are concerned.

      Ugh, it’s a tricky one! I guess we can only hope that one day The Orange Prize won’t NEED to exist.

      Thanks for commenting Ellen :)

  3. Byatt, like Paglia, seems to try to ‘get on the good side of men’, forgetting that the pendulum must swing to the opposite side, then center itself. I see sexism in poetry recognition all over the place. We need contests, forums, and awards for only women right now. Woolf, ironically, is cited, yet she wasn’t allowed in libraries. Byatt’s argument is circular and gratuitous, at best. And slightly irritating. And since when do literary forums by and for women arise simply to make female writers ‘feel good about themselves’? Insulting…………

    • Hi Patsy!

      Thanks for commenting. The Orange Prize, and other prizes like it, have always been in contestation – I am simply weighing up the argument and offering my opinion. While I recognise the progressive and beneficial aspects of this award, I must also give weight to the other side of the argument: is this an award that the industry needs? Aren’t all ‘awards’ guilty of boosting egos, whether intended or not?

      I agree that Byatt’s argument is slightly irritating (as I mentioned), especially from a woman who writes under such an ungendered name (AS Byatt). But she is not alone in her argument.

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