Future of women’s literary prize no longer Orange
The winner of the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction was announced in London’s Southbank last night, with the honours going to American author Madeline Miller for her debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’, inspired by the tale of Homer’s Illiad.
Ms Miller teaches Latin, Greek and Shakespeare in an American High School and has spent ten years penning her first book.
The Orange Prize for Fiction was founded to ‘celebrate and promote the very best of international fiction written by women.’
Ms Miller will not only take her place in literary history as one of only a handful of recipients of the esteemed title, but also as the very last recipient of the Orange Prize as we know it.
The mobile phone company announced last week that, after 17 years, they are withdrawing as official sponsor of the award, directing its marketing budget towards the silver screen instead.
Given that the prize money itself is gifted from a private donor, the award will still be made every year. But what of a sponsor?
Although 17 years is a healthy amount of time for a large corporation such as Orange to sponsor an artistic endeavour such as this literary award, it’s not as though interest in the market has waned. Which is good news for the (no longer Orange) Literary Prize for Women’s Fiction.
The award has traditionally afforded the winner both reputational and commercial success – previous winners have included Zadie Smith, Rose Tremain, Lionel Shriver and Andrea Levy, all now household names.
Winning the title has also had a serious impact on winners’ book sales, so expectations are high that a new sponsor will be forthcoming. Kate Mosse, co-founder of the prize has said that she hopes to be able to make an announcement by the end of the summer.
So it looks as though the future may not be orange, but it’s certainly still bright.
However, the question that has dogged the prize since its inception in 1996 still remains, and rumblings have been heard in journo-land this week to the same tune – is this type of gender exclusive prize actually still necessary?
Legend has it that the Orange prize was founded in response to anger over an all-male Booker Prize short list. But given its runaway success and the fact that it has actively promoted the writing of women in a largely male dominated market place, does it really matter?
A certain journalist from the Evening Standard thinks it does, saying that it was ‘the first literary award that excluded men’ and ‘was rightly attacked as patronising and positive discrimination gone wrong.’
He (for it is a he) goes on to state that ‘Simon Jenkins called it sexist, the late Auberon Waugh nicknamed it the Lemon Prize and AS Byatt said that it “ghettoised” women.’
This from the mouth of one Sebastian Shakespeare. I kid you not.
Of course, support for the award remains strong. British historian and patron of the prize Lisa Jardine, dismissed the idea that there was no need for a women only prize, citing the success of the Orange prize as vindication enough.
‘The world is a different place now. We’re excited because now people are queuing up, and that shows us how far we’ve come.’
Perhaps we need to look more broadly across the world of literature in general to decide whether women should be promoted exclusively, or whether gender specifics don’t matter and men and women enjoy parity.
Well, last year, the London Review Of Books reviewed a mere 58 books by women as opposed to 163 by men and employed just 29 women reviewers compared with 155 men – ridiculous when you consider that over two thirds of books sold in this country are bought by women.
Book stores are also more likely to display books by male authors than those by their female counterparts.
More startlingly, Nobel Prize-winning author V. S. Naipaul said publicly that when he reads something that has been written by a woman, he can tell it is inferior to his own writing.
If these are the attitudes and practices that exist openly and publicly, then a literary prize for women should be welcomed and promoted.
I’m sure Shakespeare (the original) would agree.