Why Have a Women's Book Prize at All?
Byline: ANGELA LAMBERT
THE NEWLY-LAUNCHED Orange Prize for the best novel of the year written in English by a woman is at best badly-timed, and at worst a fundamental mistake.
Its selection panel, which claims to celebrate `excellence, originality and accessibility', has just announced the shortlist - on which, incidentally, American writers outweigh British by two to one. The novels chosen are all good, solid, worthy books, but I'm prepared to stick my neck out and say that none is a masterpiece to compare with Rohinton Mistry's magnificent A Fine Balance (yet imagine having a British fiction award open to only men of Indian origin! ) or as stark a feminist statement as Roddy Doyle's searing book about a battered wife, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.
It is true that women are still at a disadvantage in many areas of life. No one, looking at the statistics, could fail to admit that in politics, medicine, the law, the Foreign Office, women are still in a minority.
But that is simply not true of fiction. In the 26 years of the Booker's existence, women may have won only nine times - that's roughly one in every three prizes - but things have changed dramatically of late.
Take the most recent literary awards. The 1995 Booker Prize was won by Pat Barker, for her magnificent World War I novel The Ghost Road. Her editor, Clare Alexander, said at one time: `Pat suffered three sorts of prejudice: regional, gender, and ideological. If you're not part of the literary mainstream - which means the London literati - you have a lot more to overcome and have to wait longer for serious critical attention.'
That is no longer the case, at any rate not if you are a writer of Pat Barker's calibre. And calibre - excellence - may be part of the problem.
Prejudice is often used as an excuse by women of less than outstanding talent to justify their failure and resentment at not being `recognised'.
The temptation is always to believe yourself better than the critics admit.
Last year's Whitbread Book of the Year Prize was also won by a woman, Kate Atkinson (a northern, feminist writer, as it happens) for Behind The Scenes At The Museum. The previous year it had been won by Joan Brady for Theory Of War.
It may be true that in the 1980s women novelists were overlooked. Not any more. The Orange Prize for Fiction, in choosing to put women writers in a ghetto and assuming they need the extra leg-up of a prize of their very own, has been guilty of patronising them. …