Friday, April 28, 2006

Do women deserve a book prize of their own?

The Orange Prize, established by Kate Mosse in 1996 and based in Great Britain, is open to any woman writing fiction in English, whatever her nationality or country of residence. It was won last year by Lionel Shriver for her powerful examination of motherhood, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Now it its 11th year, the prize bestows on the winner £30,000 and a limited edition bronze known as a "Bessie," created and donated by the artist Grizel Niven.

The shortlist for this year was just announced:
Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black
Zadie Smith, On Beauty
Ali Smith, The Accidental
Sarah Waters, The Night Watch
Carrie Tiffany, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living

Natasha Walter, writing in the Guardian, notes that these are all first-rate novels and that two were nominated for the Man Booker prize. If these books would be competitive for the Booker (Krauss' would be ineligible because she's American), why is it necessary for women to have a prize that excludes male writers? Walter defends the prize:

given that it would be hard to find a bookseller or a critic who would discount the imaginative energy of these writers, why is there a need for this prize? Once a prize that was there to put women writers on the map becomes predictable, has it had its day?

The prize is necessary because the most prestigious prize-giving culture in Britain still often shows itself weirdly unable to recognise and reward the greatest writing, and for some reason books by women are still often the ones that lose out. When Zadie Smith's ferocious and heartfelt novel On Beauty lost out in the Booker race last year to John Banville's desiccated The Sea, it was only what one has come to expect from the Booker prize. From time to time the panel gets it right and finds a winning book that is truly a work of great imagination, but all too often it steers towards an easy consensus. The differing opinions, often refereed by an academic or politician, tend to cancel each other out, leaving the panel on the polite middle ground. What you get as a winner is a book that will be accepted by all the judges, rather than one passionately espoused by any of them.

That argument sounds reasonable enough to me.

As it happens, I read and enjoyed both the Zadie Smith and Banville books and would not have been unhappy if Smith and not Banville had won the Booker. (Had I been on the committee, I might have voted for Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go or Julian Barnes' Arthur & George).

I'm on record as being moderately pro-prize: sure, competition among artists has its downside, but these prizes mean more exposure for the writers and a nice payoff for the winner.

So what's the matter with yet another prize, even if it's only open to women who write in English? It's good for the writers and their publishers, and good for readers who might be induced to pick up a book mentioned in conjunction with the competition.

And yet: would I think the same thing about a prize open only to men?

So much for male and female writers: click here for my take on the differences between male and female readers.

As for the Booker prize, click here for an intelligent account of a Booker prize that went to the weakest nominee on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue