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The perennial Orange Prize debate

12th April 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin

Today saw the announcement of the shortlist for the Orange Prize (click here for previous winners and history of the Prize), one of the three major literary awards for fiction in the UK; the initial longlist of 20 titles has been reduced to rather more manageable six.

Here's the shortlist:

Room by Emma Donoghue
The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna
Grace Williams Says it Loud by Emma Henderson
Great House by Nicole Krauss (read our exclusive interview with Nicole here)
The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
Annabel by Kathleen Winter


Room is the clear favourite, but if you'd like a bookseller's view, my instinct is to tip The Tiger's Wife; this comes with the caveat that my gut has a poor record with such predictions.

I'm a huge fan of the Orange Prize, not least because its founder, Kate Mosse has managed to generate a significant buzz about the Prize, resulting in great media coverage in media outlets which had hitherto paid books little attention.

Jacket image for Small Island by Andrea LevyThe tipping point was probably Andrea Levy's win for Small Island in 2004, which was to sell nearly twice as many as the preceding Man Booker winner (DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little). A string of superb winners since has done much to increase awareness of literary awards generally - even the Booker has seen the benefit.

As always, many critics and readers are expressing their indignation in the press and online about personal favourites overlooked or the supposed unworthiness of certain books the judges have picked out. But the fiercest debate is the one that has dogged the Orange Prize since its inception: do we need a prize open only to female writers?

I think we do, and for two reasons.

First, the list of our most significant literary writers, in Britain at least, is still an almost exclusively male club. This top table consists of those writers considered so important that each new book will be reviewed by every publication with a books page, writers such as Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and a handful more. Perhaps the only woman whose books whose books come under similar scrutiny is Zadie Smith; A S Byatt - a vocal opponent of the premise of the Orange Prize - might also be included and I suspect Hilary Mantel will henceforth also find herself in the same position.

Jacket image for The Accidental by Ali SmithBut if Ali Smith or Jeanette Winterson, Maggie O'Farrell or Sarah Hall were male, I have little doubt they would receive the same treatment. Beryl Bainbridge has been canonised since her death, but her importance had not been fully recognised before. The proportion of column inches devoted to reviewing books by women has also been repeatedly demonstrated to be considerably less than half.

My other reason is based on fifteen years' bookselling experience: men favour books by male authors to a far greater extent than women favour books by women. If you're male and feel offended, then I'm glad you're one of the admittedly reasonably large minority of exceptions, but I think you'll find that spending a few days looking at, say, your fellow commuters' choice of books will confirm my generalisation.

The reasons for this bias have been explored at length by people with far more understanding of sociocultural issues and behavioural psychology than me, and even they have failed to come up with anything concrete.

Some cite different prevalences in style or theme or setting or scale or character development between male and female writers and readers. Any such discrepancies might possibly be borne out, in a very minor way, when comparing the entire output of the two genders, but this is of no use whatsoever in evaluating the appeal of one specific writer. The number of writers who don't fit such preconceptions is too overwhelming to be able to define books as typically male or female.

Cover designs tend to exacerbate the problem: an acceptance of the predominantly female readership of female authors does mean that publishers are more likely to use a jacket with a more stereotypically feminine design, or simply one depicting women. In a culture where machismo is still encouraged in many environments as an admirable male trait, this may unfortunately be a deterrent to potential male readers.

My only slight misgiving about the principles of the Orange Prize is the solely female judging panel. I think a token male judge - and here I throw my hat into the ring - would help emphasise the message that women write for everyone.

But I'd like to make an appeal to all male readers of this blog: whichever book wins the Orange Prize on June 8th, no matter whether it appeals or not, make a point of giving it a go. It may help you overcome a prejudice you never knew you had.

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