Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sour Grapes and Bitter Fare at the Orange Feast?

Question: Do we still need a prize for women writers?

Tim Lott doesn't think so. He objects strongly in the Telegraph to the notion that there's a need for the Orange Prize, but the bitterness of his piece and the tenor of some of the comments from men on the online piece fill one with the kind of female unease one thought one had long left behind. Lott reasons thus:
Women are predominant, in terms of numbers and power, in most of the major publishing houses and agencies. They sell most of the books, into a market that largely comprises women readers. They are favoured by what is overwhelmingly the most important prize (the Richard and Judy list), and comprise most of the reading groups that drive sales. Girls in schools are more literate than boys, and pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers.
Yet he also acknowledges this:
Despite 12 years of consciousness-raising by the Orange, the Booker still doesn't give women their mathematical due - a 3:10 ratio remains.
What we could conclude from this, in fact, is that even in a situation where men are in a minority, it is maleness which gets you the most institutionalized accolades (the Booker being our most institutionalized and status-filled literary accolade) - just as while more women than men are teachers, more headteachers are men than women. (And I do hope that the failure of my comment pointing this out to appear on the Telegraph site isn't down to anti-feminism!)

But doubt about the validity of it all isn't just confined to men, and has leaked from the female Orange judges themselves. Last year chair Muriel Gray castigated the entries, and by extension women's fiction in general, for being 'too domestic'. This year chair Kirsty Lang* agrees that a lot of the books were 'domestic dramas'. Asked by the Guardian if she had a problem with that she said not, since 'most readers of fiction are women and we like our reading to reflect our experience', yet this is somewhat undercut by her later statement: 'I would have liked to have seen bigger political themes.'

In other words, here we are again: women may be in the majority as the writers and readers of fiction, but they are identified (rightly or wrongly) with the domestic and the domestic is not valued. (It would be interesting to examine the perception and to look at the precise proportion of both women's and men's books that are either purely domestic or tackle political themes 'through the prism of the family', as Lang says some of the Orange novels do.) (And anyway, when did we go and forget that the personal is political?)

The Guardian focuses on another aspect of Lang's comments: the fact that in general the novels had been 'infected by misery memoirs'. It's not clear whether this is a direct quote from Lang, or a Guardian interpolation, but it's a pretty loaded bombshell, with the negative connotations of 'infected', and its smearing of women's fiction with the dubious moral and aesthetic status (much discussed on this blog) of a non-fiction genre which the Guardian indeed calls 'much derided.'

Perhaps this is the trouble with a prize for women's fiction: it means that any trends in contemporary fiction get blamed on the women, and guys like Edward St Aubyn get off scot-free.


*Sorry, at the risk of proving how inept women are, I confess that in an earlier version of this I called her Kirsty Wark.
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