Orange Is a Female Color

By Woodman, Sue | The Nation, July 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

Orange Is a Female Color


Woodman, Sue, The Nation


May 15 was a sparkling night for the British cultural elite: Within the marble pillars of One Whitehall Place, London's old Liberal Club, more than 400 people in evening dress, champagne in hand, gathered beneath the chandeliers and shelves of fake-leather-bound books to fete the winner of a new literary prize, the Orange Prize for English Language Fiction. The award went to British novelist Helen Dumnore's A Spell of Winter, which beat out five other finalists: The Book of Colour, by Julia Blackburn; Spinsters, by Pagan Kennedy; The Hundred Secret Senses, by Amy Tan; Ladder of Years, by Anne Tyler; and Eveless Eden, by Marianne Wiggins.

Although the awards presentation was the kind of event that the British cultural elite love--a combination of elegant and schmoozy, with a bracing dash of controversy--the fact that it went off so smoothly was something of a triumph. For the Orange Prize, designed exclusively for women writers, had set off a furious, weekslong debate in the British media about the value of winning such an explicitly "sexist" prize. Novelist A. S. Byatt said she felt it " ghettoized" women. Anita Brookner, a former Booker Prize winner, felt it was "positive discrimination" and refused to allow her latest novel to be submitted. And mainstream media critics, faulting first the prize itself and then the shortlisted books, filled newspaper columns for weeks with antifeminist abuse.

"There were only about five journalists who didn't like the idea of the prize," says novelist Kate Mosse, a driving force behind the award, who was stunned at the level of hostility. "But because they had the media access, they were able to give the impression that the whole country was divided."

The main gripe of the critics seemed to center on the money attached. Endowed by an anonymous woman in her 80s and sponsored by the Orange telecommunications company, the Orange is the largest literature prize in Britain today, worth a princessly $46,000, compared with the Whitbread Book of the Year's $33,000 and the prestigious Booker Prize's $31,000.

"Nobody would be saying anything if the award were a potted plant and a handshake," says British TV personality and author Sarah Dunant, one of the founders of the prize. "But here's one time you can't say that size doesn't matter." Indeed, according to Simon Jenkins, former editor of the London Times, the size of the Orange Prize was very important indeed: important, that is, for men.

"Men might ruefully comment that SOME women writers have an easier time financially by not being the principal family earner," Jenkins wrote. "Authorship is a hard, tough and unprofitable activity. Novels win little bread, and few men who are sole breadwinners have time or money for it. Orange's cash would not come amiss to such men."

The prize's organizers argued back that it wouldn't come amiss to women either: that no longer were most female novelists little wives and mothers, knocking out their novels at the kitchen table, in time snatched away from the babies and the breadmaking. But they also argued that money was not the most important aspect of the prize. The main point, argued Mosse, was to stimulate interest in women's fiction--an interest all too often overshadowed by the cultural domination of men's writing. For it is books by men, Mosse said, that get the reviews, the acclaim and the sales.

In fact, the initial idea for a women-only award was generated by the announcement, back in 1991, of yet another all male shortlist for the Booker Prize. In the past five years, this important literary accolade (which itself limits eligibility to Commonwealth writers only) has shortlisted thirty writers, of whom just four have been women. Many of Britain's most prestigious women writers--from Angela Carter to P.D. James and Hilary Mantel--have never even been shortlisted.

Driven to despair over the unacknowledged state of women's fiction, a high-level group of women publishers decided that, rather than just complain, they should do something about it.

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