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