Orange Prize: Discrimination or Not?

The women-only Orange Prize turns 10 this week. Geraldine Bedell does a great job of weighing all the arguments on the question of whether the prize constitutes discrimination. Here’s a bit about the history of the prize:

The plan for a women’s fiction prize emerged out of a series of meetings between publishers, authors, agents, booksellers and journalists in the wake of the 1991 Booker shortlist, which featured no women. (Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter were among the eligible females.) No statistics existed, but this omission was felt to be something of a habit.

Where women did appear, as Michele Roberts did on the Booker shortlist and Kate Atkinson on the Whitbread, both in 1992, they were seen as the female contender, their chances discussed in terms of their gender – as if, says the novelist Kate Mosse – who would become the force behind the Orange Prize – ‘they were somehow representative of the entire sex.’

But shortly after the prize was announced (and quickly endowed with a substantial amount by an anonymous donor) opposition mounted. Male critics cried foul, citing the prize as “PC discrimination.”

Opposition was not restricted to men, or tabloid reporters. ‘I am against positive discrimination,’ said Anita Brookner, a Booker winner. ‘If women want equality, which they do, and which they have largely achieved, they shouldn’t ask for separate treatment … If a book is good, it will get published. If it is good it will get reviewed.’

In the week of the Orange launch, one broadsheet newspaper carried 20 reviews, 19 of them on books by men. Women publish about 70 per cent of novels in Britain. Were they so bad?

These sorts of things continue to happen, even though many positions in publishing are held by women, and even though the vast majority of readers are women. Bedell presents both sides of the argument, but fails to take a clear stand–she simply says that prizes that last resonate with the public, and so far this one has. What do you think? Does the Orange Prize constitude discrimination? Or should the Man Booker, Whitbread, Pulitzer, and other awards be held accountable for their failure to recognize women in a fair way? Send your thoughts to llalami AT yahoo DOT com, with the subject line “Orange Prize.”

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