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A prize of one’s own: Is it time to end the Orange?

April 20, 2010

Lorrie Moore, short-listed for Britain's Orange Prize.

And another pun I choose not to resist: Oranges may not be the only fruit, but they do offer the only literary award restricted to women. This year’s short list was announced yesterday — I’ll get to that in a moment — but first: Does such a prize have any justification nowdays?

I ask not because I think feminism has triumphed and gender equality reigns over the English-speaking world (the Orange is a British enterprise). Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! Good one! No, I ask because women make up such  an overwhelming majority of the adult reading public, I hardly wonder why male writers bother with fiction anymore.

For those on the edge of your chairs, here’s the short list for the 15th edition of the Orange Prize: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, which has already taken the Man Booker and National Book Critics Circle awards; The Very Thought of You, by Rosie Alison; Barbara Kingsolver’s historical novel The Lacuna; Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs; Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising; and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, by Monique Roffey.

It’s an eclectic list, featuring two debut novelists (Locke, Alison) and three Americans (Moore, Kingsolver, Locke).

“With a thriller, historical novels that reflect our world back to us, and a tragicomedy about post-9/11 America, there is something here to challenge, amuse and enthral every kind of reader,” Daisy Goodwin, this year’s chair, told the Guardian.

Back to the bigger picture:  A few years ago novelist Ian McEwan conducted a casual experiment. He took 30 novels to a London park and gave them away. All but one were taken by “eager and grateful women,” according to an NPR story from 2007.

Men in the park? They “frowned in suspicion or distaste.” Shaken by the experience, McEwan concluded: “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”

Surveys conducted over the past decade support McEwan’s anecdotal evidence: According to Lakshmi Chaudhry, writing at In These Times.com, a 2000 study showed that “women comprised a greater percentage of readers than men across all genres: Espionage/thriller (69 percent); General (88 percent); Mystery/Detective (86 percent); and even Science Fiction (52 percent).”

It’s not that mean do not read at all: As a group we prefer nonfiction. Everyone has a theory about why this might be. Conservtive columnist David Brooks, as strained through Chaudhry, blames it on a “feminized” school curricula that force boys to read drippy novels about girls and their feelings.

This is ridiculous — if we go by readership, even Hemingway is chick lit –but no less so that the notion put forth by “cognitive psychologists:” Girls can sit still longer, they have a greater emotional range and more empathy, and are, in other words, just much more highly evolved than men.

Male novelist Walter Kirn (Up in the Air) muses: “If novelists have become culturally invisible—at least to today’s men—it’s partly because the life of a novelist offers few rewards to the traditional male ego. It’s not about power, glory and money,”

And I, the veteran book reviewer, offer this: Nonfiction offers evidence — answers; fiction, at its best, can provide only questions. Maybe men want certitude more than women.

Soon it won’t matter anyway. Everyone’s reading less, regardless of gender or category, and immersive reading of either fiction or nonfiction is doomed to extinction. Maybe I’ll write a relationship/career guide: “Men are Mechanics, Women are Florists.”

In the meantime, why do you think women read so much more fiction than men? And do we need a literary prize for women novelists in an age when all fiction is women’s fiction, regardless of the gender of the authors? You tell me.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:13 pm

    This is very interesting. I think that we need an award for only female authors because what you are talking about in this blog is female readers and writers not winners of prizes. I wonder if we looked at the ratio of male and female authors who win the big literary prizes if it would reflect a majority for women. I highly doubt it. It seems to me that even if there are more female readers, and I agree we are more highly evolved, that the majority of the prizes probably go to men. I would be interested in these types of figures.

    Ian McEwan’s little experiment is an interesting one. I don’t know, don’t men read fiction? Chauncey Mabe, do you read more fiction or non-fiction? I think that maybe sometimes non-fiction can offer answers but if it’s really good these answers probably just lead into more questions. And I disagree, I think that fiction can offer answers. (Which in turn lead to more questions).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 20, 2010 4:34 pm

      I’m not sure how to find out the ratio of male-to-female winners of major literary prizes (that is, not without doing some real reporting and research and –hey!– this is the Internet, we don’t do that here), but I have taken a look at the history of the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious. It started in 1969. Of the 41 awards thus far, 28 have gone to men, while 16 have gone to women. That includes 1974, when Nadine Gordimer (The Conservationist) and Stanley Middleton (The Holiday) share the prize. That’s a wide enough margin as to be questionable, especially when in, say, 2003, when DBC Pierre won for Vernon God Little against a strong slate of female contenders: Monica Ali, Margaret Atwood, Zoe Heller, Clare Morrall. But I think what we need is not a prize just for women, but perhaps a rule that for the next ten years or so, all literary judging panels should be made up exclusively of women…?

  2. Connie permalink
    April 20, 2010 2:23 pm

    I’m with Rachel (again!) I’d like to know the percentage of women who win the other literary prizes before I make an assessment. Besides, if we’re the ones reading all the novels, maybe women writers SHOULD get their own prize.

    BTW, I’m sure Mantel will win, but my GOD, I want SOMEONE to acknowledge the singular greatness of “A Gate at the Stairs” (though I do wonder if that book has any appeal to male readers).

    Which brings me to another point: like (the usually very fine writer) McEwan, I conduct little tests on my male friends (who are not book critics). Most of them can’t remember the last book they read by a female writer. I tried this on my ex-husband years ago (this may have something to do with why he’s an ex) and asked what was the last thing he’d read by a woman. All he could come up with was Flannery O’Connor (which he read in college). He promptly sat down and started A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” (with me glowering at him).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 20, 2010 4:09 pm

      Wow, that’s two hard questions from a couple of tough chicks! Connie, I have no doubt that men believe (erroneously) that fiction by women is soft and romantic and feminine and womanly and domestic. They should read more. In fact, your ex-husband should have known from reading Flannery O’Connor that some of the most tough-minded writers around are female. Some others leaping to mind: Andrea Barrett, one of my favorites. Annie Proulx. Joyce Carol Oates. Muriel Spark. One of the best Western novelists was Dorothy Johnson (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, A Man Called Horse — are these not manly stories?), Martha Gelhorn, for pete’s sake, who was infinitely less sentimental in her work than her husband Ernest Hemingway. Which puts me atop one of my hobby-horses: If you read the tough guys — Hemingway, Mailer, Jim Harrison and on and on — you’ll find underneath the crust a romantic heart of such tender delicacy as to disgust your average school girl.

    • rachel permalink
      April 21, 2010 9:58 am

      Connie, that’s a good test that you’ve cooked up. I think I might have to use that.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 20, 2010 4:56 pm

    Oh, and for the record, I read three novels or story collections for every nonfiction book, or thereabouts. I prefer the narrative, the story, the magic that arises only from the fictive imagination. And the last female author I read: the incomparable Maryse Conde, who should be at or near the top of everyone’s reading list. This past year, I’ve also read Hilary Mantel, Catherine Fisher, A. Manette Ansay, Ana Menendez, Pat MacEnulty, Monica Ali, to name a few.

  4. Sean permalink
    April 20, 2010 6:47 pm

    Vive l’orange!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 20, 2010 10:24 pm

      Nothing rhymes with orange, let us not forget.

  5. April 22, 2010 8:05 am

    I agree with Rachel and Connie. Your thesis falls apart if you look at the ratio of male and female authors who win the big literary prizes. The Booker is a good example, and there are more. Take a look at the Pulitzer, National Book Award, James Tait Black, Costa/Whitbread, Giller Prize, Governor General’s Award, etc. etc. On the whole I think you’ll find that historically women have been under-represented. And there’s a long history of neglect: just take a look at the Virago Modern Classics, published by Virago Press, and you’ll discover many talented women writers whose work was largely ignored during their lifetimes. Things may be improving but I don’t think we’ve levelled the playing field yet.

    And as Rachel said, “what you are talking about in this blog is female readers and writers not winners of prizes.” It seems you have several points you’re trying to make here. Men don’t read, so the Orange Prize is irrelevant? Everyone’s reading less? Women read more fiction which you imply is fluff? Any one of these could spark tremendous debate, but have nothing to do with whether there should be a literary prize for women authors.

  6. April 22, 2010 7:42 pm

    I encounter far more men who decline fiction written by a female than the reverse. I wonder how many women are still hiding behind initials or male pseudomyns in hopes of capturing that male audience? I can’t think of any male only book prizes, can you? Gender restriction seem to have seen its day. I’m for opening up the oranges to apples and pears and…

    In 2008, Sadie Jones, an Orange Prize winner for Outcast, stated she would like to see a men-only prize. She said “I think there should be a literary prize for men. I have a son, and you hear a lot about boys not reading. Anything that adds interest or glamour for boys can only be good sense.”

    One of my favorite book lists is The Amelia Bloomer Project which is sponsored by the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of The American Library Association. Heavy on female authors, it features recommended feminist fiction and nonfiction for young readers from preschool through age 18. The criteria include feminist content, quality of writing, and appeal to young readers. Male authors are accepted as long as the criteria is met. That’s the way it should be. Neither sex has exclusivity on good writing!

  7. April 28, 2010 2:27 pm

    What Rachel said. The prize is not about the gender of the readers, but the imbalance in the gender of the winners (and presumably of the judges).

    Vive l’orange indeed.

    And I don’t think there should be a literary prize for men only: they’ve had undue bias in their favour for too many centuries already. The only way I could support this if if all the big prizes are split into two: 2 Nationals, 2 Booker, 2 Commonwealth or whatever, in the same way that the Oscars split the top prize into a Best Actor and a Best Actress.

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