The winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, open to women writers only, will be announced on March 14. The usual debates over whether the prize is necessary or just an example of reverse sexism continue to flourish.
Geraldine Bedell sums up the history of the Prize:
“The 2003 winner, Valerie Martin, says that as far as she can make out, the prize ‘was founded in a fit of pique, which seems like a very good reason to start something’. The plan for a women’s fiction prize emerged out of a series of meetings between publishers, authors, agents, booksellers and journalists in the wake of the 1991 Booker shortlist, which featured no women. (Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter were among the eligible females.) No statistics existed, but this omission was felt to be something of a habit.
Where women did appear, as Michele Roberts did on the Booker shortlist and Kate Atkinson on the Whitbread, both in 1992, they were seen as the female contender, their chances discussed in terms of their gender – as if, says the novelist Kate Mosse – who would become the force behind the Orange Prize – ‘they were somehow representative of the entire sex.’
Mosse says the women at those early meetings (who included the literary agents Jane Gregory and Anne McDermott and publishers Liz Calder and Lennie Goodings) reached the conclusion that ‘paradoxically, the way to take gender out of the equation was for all the entrants to be women’. Prizes are known to sell books, ‘so was there an issue about readers not getting to hear about a lot of books? We saw the prize as something that would benefit male and female readers.'”
Ten years down the line, the last word on the Orange should come from the shortlists. Every single year, the Orange highlights writers who either don’t get attention in the mainstream and (admit it) reasonably sexist world of reviews and book prizes or who’re part of the mainstream as the Token Woman or who’re undeservedly overlooked. Or to put it more simply, every year the Orange offers me a new list of books to read that I would have been hard put to compile on my own if I’d culled mainstream sources for these authors’ names. The other thing that sometimes gets lost about the Orange in the middle of the gender debate is that it’s unusual among literary prizes: it found its feet within a year or two, its shortlists have always been value for the reader’s money, and it has never had a problem finding enough writers to nominate. It should be interesting to see, over the next few decades, whether mainstream media catches up enough with the Orange to render it redundant–I suspect it’ll still be needed some twenty years down the line, though.