(First published in the Business Standard, May 30, 2005)
When the Orange Prize for women’s fiction was announced in January 1996, it seemed like a retrograde step to many observers. This was the enlightened 21st century, not the dark ages: some condemned the prize for excluding men, and writer A S Byatt declared that she couldn’t support a prize that “ghettoized” women.
Ten years on, I think Kate Mosse, the founder of the Orange Prize, saw something that none of us had—precisely because we assume that we live in an age of equality. Mosse’s frustration had to do with the 1991 all-male Booker shortlist; she and others in the publishing world felt that women writers had to work that much harder to be visible, and that even the most talented women writers were judged differently from men.
MobyLives, a leading literary blog, would agree: over the years, MobyLives has tracked the New York Times coverage of male and female authors and sees a tremendous gender gap. If you’re looking at literary prizes, the Nobel for literature has a dismal reward: in its 105-year-old history, only ten women have won the prize. The Booker has honoured 12 women in 33 years, but its shortlists are still tilted towards male authors.
This week, Lisa Jardine and Anne Watkins published the results of a survey they conducted across a sample of 100 academics, critics and writers. They found that while support for the Orange Prize was almost unanimous, there was an astonishing gender gap in terms of reading habits. “Men who read fiction tend to read fiction by men, while women read fiction by both women and men. Consequently, fiction by women remains ‘special interest’, while fiction by men still sets the standard for quality, narrative and style,” write Jardine and Watkins.
The bias doesn’t seem to be deliberate, but it’s there. In the late ‘90s, the editors of Random House’s Modern Library series put together a list of the hundred best novels of the 20th century. Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Bowen and Jean Rhys were the only women to feature on the list; Woolf was the only one in the top 50. In 1998, the Radcliffe Publishing Course compiled its own list of novels to counter the Modern Library list—the aim was to correct several biases, not just the gender bias, but it was a revealing exercise. Harper Lee, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Mitchell, Ayn Rand, Daphne du Maurier, Kate Chopin, Flannery O’Connor and Gertrude Stein joined the company of women, and added a sense of the range and variety of women’s writing.
If you look at the second list of names, you might begin to gain an insight into how easy it is to overlook women’s writing, and how strange that omission seems once it’s pointed out. There are still names missing from the Radcliffe list: Margaret Drabble and Nadine Gordimer, for instance, but it goes some way to restoring the balance.
Ten years gives you enough time to assess the worth of a prize, and with the Orange, there’s no question that it’s become one of the most respected literary awards in the business. This is partly because the Orange has stuck to its agenda, which is to showcase the best writing available in any given year. Aside from the fact that the prize is open only to women’s writers, there is no other agenda, no particular kind of women’s writing that the juries are encouraged to promote. Borderline chicklit hasn’t been excluded; neither has the huge, sweeping, historical saga. The themes authors have tackled range from vaudeville to hostage situations, from race equations in postwar England to Nigeria in the throes of a coup, from the travails of a lesbian pickpocket to drama on the Titanic. And the Orange seems to feel no need to bend over backwards in order to accommodate newer writers at the expense of more established names: from Margaret Atwood, E Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison and the late Carol Shields to newer writers like Trezza Azzopardi, Oonya Kempadoo or Kamila Shamsie, they’re all there.
The worth of the Orange lies in the fact that it restores the balance. Once in a while, an author like Shirley Hazzard will get a fair shake from the mainstream awards. More often, you’re dealing with writers like Ann Patchett or Andrea Levy who get some media attention, but who gain from the Orange’s endorsement of their worth. The Orange’s record with regard to authors from the subcontinent has been good: it’s flagged authors from Anita Desai to Kamila Shamsie to Shauna Singh Baldwin to Monica Ali.
It’s often argued that the Orange has no business discriminating against male writers; this year, as the tenth anniversary of the prize came up, a few commentators argued that the original biases that had prompted the setting up of the prize were diminishing, and that there was no need for a women’s-only medal any more. But Jardine’s research makes it clear that there is a difference: that even among the ranks of people who might appear to be beyond prejudice, the ways in which we read are inherently polarized. I’m fascinated by the question Jardine raises but doesn’t answer: if men and women read differently, where exactly does the difference lie? But that’s a subject that demands a column to itself.
It’s hard to look at mainstream book reviews and argue with conviction that women writers are given the same space as male writers: just because some women are on an equal footing doesn’t mean that the gender as a whole has progressed. There might come a time when the Orange Prize is no longer necessary; when the Nobel committee automatically considers women authors alongside men without the need for recourse to affirmative action, when the mainstream media’s book review sections have a fifty-fifty split between women writers and male writers as a matter of course, not of deliberate policy, when men become as comfortable with reading women authors as women are reading male authors.
There might be a time when the Orange shortlist is redundant, because most of the authors on it are also featured on the Whitbread and the Booker shortlists; but that time hasn’t yet arrived. Until it does, the Orange is needed, as a reminder of how easy it is to overlook fine, talented authors just because they have the wrong chromosome.