Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Orange Prize: keeping women writers in their place?

In today's The Independent, Sarah Churchwell writes:

The shortlist for the Orange Prize for fiction, the UK's only annual book award for fiction written by a woman, has just been announced. The all-female panel of judges have produced an appealing selection of books that I'm sure are all worth reading....

...I deplore the fact that we live in a world that still requires special prizes for women writers, and assigns only women to judge those prizes.

Awarding literary--or any other--prizes exclusively to women working in what are commonly viewed as male-dominated fields does not promote equality. What does winning the Orange Prize mean? Merely that the winning novel is pretty darn good, for a book written by a woman. The implication, however unintended, is clear: women aren't good enough to compete in the same sphere as male writers, so we need a literary prize for the ladies.

Ms. Churchwell "deplores" the practice of awarding literary prizes for women only, but believes it to be a necessary evil:

Major literary prizes over the past few years have managed to remember to include women in their shortlists; writers such as Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, and Sarah Waters are perennial nominees, and last year two wonderful novels by women won both the Man Booker prize (The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai) and the Pulitzer Prize (March by Geraldine Brooks).

This being the case, are prizes for "women writers" not inherently redundant, or at least obsolete? In some ways, they may be, but the sad truth is that they remain a necessary corrective in a world that continues to believe in and market something called "women's fiction", which defines some fiction by the sex of its author, while allowing the books by all the people who are not women to be called, simply, fiction.

Her definition of women's fiction is unforgivably simplistic. While it's true that most women's fiction is written by women, and many people assume that if a woman wrote it, it must be women's fiction, that label actually describes a genre, not the sex of the books' authors. If a novel is not primarily about human relationships, then it is not women's fiction, even if it was authored by a woman.

It's a fact that men's and women's brains are wired differently. In general, men aren't nearly as interested in "nurturing" as we women are. So they're not as eager to read or write "relationship" books, including romance--although a few men do write such books, and many men read them. So while women's fiction is usually defined as "relationship" novels written for women by women, that's not strictly true. For instance, the relationship-focused, emotionally intense novels of Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook, Message in a Bottle) are often described as women's fiction. (When such books are made into movies, we call them "chick flicks.")

I have no objection to prizes for women's fiction and romance novels because men are free to enter those contests, and the judges need not be female. The books may be all pink and girly, the vast majority of them authored by women, but they're judged without regard to the sex of their authors, so the playing field is a level one.

Not so with the Orange Prize. That award continues to suggest to the world that female writers, bless their sweet little hearts, just aren't quite as talented as men.

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