Lamentably, mobile phone company Orange is pulling its sponsorship of the Orange Prize for Fiction, the only international literary award for women writers with any prestige and a potentially life-changing, liberating thirty grand for the winner. Of course, Orange will continue to sponsor the BAFTAs but then that gets lots of telly coverage and pix of movie stars in the papers, whilst women’s writing, in comparison, is just not media-sexy.
Since the prize began in 1996, people, even women writers, have carped that women writers don’t need their own prize; it’s patronising; it’s literary ghetto-isation; women should write it out with men on a level playing field blah blah blah. All of which ignores the fact that, while women make up 70% of the book-buying market, prize short-lists, judging panels and book reviews are dominated by men. Maybe that’s why in over 100 years, only twelve women have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
The parallel lack of equality in every other area of life (and, no, I am not prepared to argue about it nor will I extol the empowering nature of pole-dancing, performing in pornos or decorating cupcakes) disadvantages women writers who earn less in their day jobs, bear the brunt of housework, child care and remembering birthdays, and ipso facto have less time and energy to write. Virginia Woolf was spot-on with her requisite room of one’s own and a thousand a year. Given inflation, the Orange Prize’s 30k provides the female novelist with the necessary freedom from financial stress to write.
Money aside, in a society where prizes mean press coverage, the Orangealso draws attention to women writers who still tend to be overlooked, marginalised and under-rated. Philippa Gregory spoke recently about her chosen genre, the historical novel, suffering belittlement because it is traditionally favoured by women writers and gets lumped in with the likes of Georgette Heyer’s romantic, bodice-rippers; Hilary Mantell winning the Man Booker with Wolf Hall in 2009 has given new gravitas to the genre.
The problem with literature by women lies in its staying power, its longevity; it’s not that books by women don’t get published; it’s not that book by women don’t sell; it’s that books by women get forgotten; they are not reprinted; they are excluded, on the flimsiest pretexts, from the library of fame by a predominantly male literary establishment.
Barbara Pym’s career is a case in point. Her beautifully-observed, Austen-like novels, depicting, with sharp irony, the lives of middle-class women in English suburbs and villages, were extremely popular in the fifties but fell out of favour and out of print in the Swinging Sixties. Publishers and pundits were quick to decide that no one wanted to read about the dreams and disappointments of academic spinsters and vicars’ wives when they could read about muscular, masculine ‘real life’, gang rape and drug abuse, in Last Exit to Brooklyn and The Naked Lunch? Poor old Barbara could barely get published until a man, albeit nerdy poet Philip Larkin, nominated her as the most under-rated writer of the twentieth century. She was short-listed for the 1977 Booker for her novel Quartet in Autumn and saved from literary oblivion.
Orange Prize founder, Kate Mosse is making positive noises about an exciting, new future for the award; let’s hope she’s right.