Why Women Authors Still Need the Orange Prize

Article excerpt

Byline: Rosamund Urwin

THE judges of the Orange Prize deserve a little sympathy. If you are invited to arbitrate the Booker, you read a few million words and then weigh in on their relative merits. Job done, ego boosted, bank account back in the black ( just -- playing literary kingmaker isn't exactly lucrative work). But if asked to bestow the Orange Prize, you spend half your time trying to justify its very existence.

Tomorrow, the shortlist for the X-chromosomes-only award is out. The judges have had an impressive and eclectic mix to flip through this year -- from Room, Emma Donoghue's beautifully-crafted novel about a woman's imprisonment, to Karen Russell's wonderfully-named Swamplandia! set in an alligatorwrestling park. Both these authors -- along with many of the other names on the long-list -- have won recognition already, of the non-sex specific kind. Why then do women still need their own award? Not long ago, I would have been among those levelling the usual charges against the Orange Prize: that it simultaneously discriminates against men and patronises women. But then I realised quite how unequal the world of books still is.

Women write around the same number of books as men and buy significantly more, yet female authors receive only a small slice of the column inches in the most prestigious literary publications. VIDA, an organisation set up two years ago to promote women in the literary sphere, recently totted up the sexes of the authors reviewed last year. In the Times Literary Supplement, 330 women had their books critiqued compared with 1,036 men -- and the TLS was more favourable to females than many others.

The Orange Prize is a small way to redress an obvious imbalance. …