Friday, 2 July 2010

Orange Prize for Fiction: A Sexist Award

Barbara Kingsglover’s  Lacuna won this year’s Orange prize for fiction. According to the chair of the judges it was a book of “breathtaking scale and shattering poignancy”. Credit must be given to the judges who, despite the shattering experience, picked themselves up and presented a beaming Kingsglover, a finalist in 1999 for her worldwide best-seller, The  Poisonwood Bible, with the £ 30,000 cheque.

Some have suggested that the Orange prize should become a part of the ‘trinity’ of the UK literary prizes, along with the Man Booker Prize and the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Book Award.

I have a slight problem with this. Call me cantankerous, but to my mind the Orange Prize will never have the same shine as the Man Booker, for one simple reason: male authors are not allowed to compete for the Orange Prize; it is an award exclusively for female writers.

The idea of establishing the award exclusively for female writers was first mooted apparently by Kate Mosse, the best-selling author of the 2005 novel Labyrinth (I have to read it one of these days), who was mightily pissed off (allegedly) by the all-male short list of what was then the Booker prize, in 1991.

I really don’t see the point, in this day and age, of discriminating on the basis of gender. You might as well announce a prize exclusively for, I don’t know, people with Down’s syndrome or folk from Norfolk. I am sure these groups have also been consistently overlooked for literary awards. Indeed the prejudice might be such that they might not even find publishers for their literary outputs.

If we take a look at the winners of the Man Booker prize, generally considered to be the most prestigious literary award in the UK, we note that in the forty years since it was first launched, 25 men and 15 women have won the award. Hardly the case of women writers being consistently overlooked, I would have thought. True, some great women writers are missing from the list, such as Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Anita Desai; but so are some very talented male writers, for example, Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, Martin Amis, and William Boyd. Indeed there have been occasions when female writers have even benefitted as the judges could not agree amongst themselves as to which amongst the shortlisted male writers should be awarded the prize, and ultimately chose the woman writer as a compromise choice. Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker prize in 1979 for Offshore. However, if the scurrilous memoir (Sir Vidia’s Shadow) of Paul Theroux, who was on that year’s panel of judges, is to be believed, none of the judges felt that the novel was worthy of the award. The reason Offshore was chosen, was the two groups that had formed within the panel simply could not agree whether V.S. Naipaul or Patrick White should be awarded the prize, and  settled for Fitzgerald in the end, towards whom, rather her novel, the warring factions were indifferent. Now don’t get me wrong; Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my favourite writers (although Offshore is not, in my humble opinion, her best offering (it goes without saying that what I think matters to no one save myself)); I am merely pointing out that Fitzgerald won the 1979 Booker prize for reasons other than literary. The Bone People, the 1985 Booker winner, the debut (and to date only) novel of the Maori writer Keri Hulme, is one of the worst books I have wasted my money on. When I begin reading a book, I generally persevere till the end (especially if I have paid for it). When it comes to reading, I should like to think that I am a patient person by nature and have a high threshold for discarding a novel as bootless; The Bone People crossed that threshold by the width of Siberia. The book was unreadable; it is the only book I can think of in the last ten years I did not finish despite two or three attempts.  Mind you, Bone People is not the only disappointing Booker winner I have had the misfortune to read. There was Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, which was a monumental exercise in tedium. If the novel had any point to it, it was buried deep under the avalanche of trivia with which Carey deluged the reader. His second Booker winner, The True History of the Kelly Gang was much more interesting and readable, although his deliberate omission of any punctuation marks—allegedly to convey the fact that Kelly was semiliterate—was gimmicky and unnecessary. The joint winner of the 1992 Booker prize The Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unswarth (another writer I rate highly; his Pascali’s Island is a very favourite novel), was so relentlessly grim and dreary that by comparison the monthly Church newsletter is a bowl of strong coffee. However, neither of the books comes anywhere near The Bone People which leaves the reader comatose with the blahs.

The Orange Prize began its life for no other reason than that some female writers were cheesed off because of their ill-founded belief that female writers were consistently overlooked for major literary awards, and decided that the best way to redress was to blatantly discriminate against male writers. The Prize began its life out of pique.

Nevertheless, since the prize, like old age, cannot simply be wished away, I thought I should have a look at the Orange winners in the past 15 years, since it was established. Of the fifteen Orange winners, I have read eight. I have no intention of reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home, the 2009 winner, as I did not like at all her earlier novel, Gilead, for which she won the Pulitzer. I struggled to finish the novel, which seemed  like a long religious essay, and I doubt anyone other than a fundamentalist Christian would have enjoyed, or even understood, the soliloquy of its narrator that would have rendered a donkey catatonic. I most definitely plan to read Rose Tremain’s Road Home. I have read a few of Tremain’s novels and have loved all of them, Restoration being my favourite. I bought Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin the year it won the orange, but was slightly put off by the writing style, which I felt was tortuous. So I put it away, thinking I would read it some other time, and never really got round to do that. However, since it has been chosen as the people’s most favourite Orange prize winner, I shall give it a go. Interestingly Lionel Shriver’s real name is Margaret Ann, which she changed to Lionel because of her belief that men have an easier life (where did she get this idea from?), and I am sure the irony of winning a women-only prize will not have lost on her. I shall also read Chimamanda  Nagozi Addichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun (2007 winner), as I enjoyed her debut novel, inspired though it was (by the author’s own admission) by Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Of the Orange Prize winners I have managed to read, my favourite is Linda Grant’s When I lived in Modern Times which won the prize in 2000. I vaguely remember that anonymous charges of plagiarism were levelled at Grant within hours of her surprise win, piping the bookies’ favourite, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, to the post. Apparently Grant wanted to credit A.J. Sherman’s oral history of British Palestine, Mandate Days, but was advised against it by her publishers, Granta. The charges of plagiarism were probably motivated by that eternal human emotion: jealousy. Whoever had levelled the baseless accusation at Grant, who is a top rate novelist, did not even have the guts to come out in the open and chose to hide behind the cloak of anonymity. Zadie Smith (another writer who decided to change her name, Sadie, which she thought was not exotic enough, but stuck to her gender when selecting her new name) won the prize in 2006 for On Beauty. On Beauty is witty, entertaining, and eminently readable (reminiscent of vintage David Lodge, and, as with many of Lodge's novels, On Beauty has academia as its backdrop). The only problem is the plot structure is lifted lock, stock and barrel from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, without any acknowledgement. The late Carol Shield won the prize in 1998 for Larry’s Party which, in my view, is her weakest novel. A boring monotonous tale of the boring life of a boring man, the novel never really gets out of the left lane and Shield’s home grown truths begin to irritate you after a while. Larry’s Party is not a patch on her Pulitzer winner The Stone Diaries. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which won the 2002 Orange Prize, is dreadful. Patchett  took a tired uninspiring idea and hacked out a plangent hackneyed novel. I did not like Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, which won the inaugural prize in 1996, either. It was well written, but lacked fatally in animation. Reading it was like eating a highly orchestrated but flavourless salad. I have not read any of Dunmore's novels since. I quite liked Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, which won the 1997 Orange Prize (although I enjoyed Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which won the Booker that year, even more, heavily inspired though it was, in its narrative style, by Salman Rushdie). Michaels considers herself primarily a poet, which probably explains the excessively lyrical language employed throughout the novel (that rendered, to me, some sections of the novel almost undecipherable). I thoroughly enjoyed Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighbourhood, which won the 1999 Orange Prize. Simply yet beautifully written and hauntingly atmospheric, the novel, which was part whodunit (and sustained the reader’s interest until the end) and part rite-of-passage, was a superb achievement. (With great expectations and anticipation, I bought Berne’s next novel, A Perfect arrangement; it was competently written, but was a slight letdown.) The novel that won the Man-Booker in 1999, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, remains for me one of the greatest novels I have ever read.

A welcome aspect of the literary prizes is that the promotion of the short-listed novels and winners introduces readers to writers they might otherwise not have tried. I had never heard of Andrea Levy until she won the Orange and Whitbread award for her fourth novel, Small Island, in 2004. I bought Small Island only because it won the prize and liked it a lot. I then bought all of Levy’s previously published novels, and liked them even more. But for the Orange Prize, I would have missed out on an excellent writer. (This is true of any awards. DBC—Dirty But Clean—Pierre was the surprise winner of the 2003 Booker prize for his debut novel, Vernon God Little. It took me a while to get into Pierre’s (real name Peter Finlay) Tex-Mex saga of its titular fifteen year old protagonist (described by the New York Times as Holden Caulfield on Ritalin), but once I did, I found the book unputdownable. Pierre’s quirky sense of humour and unusual phraseology got me hooked till the end. I quite enjoyed his second novel (Ludmila’s Broken English) as well, although it did not match the success of Vernon God Little; in fact it pretty much sank without trace.

I remain opposed to the concept of Orange prize on matters of principles. I think it is a sexist award, and I find it surprising that so many established female writers agree to enter their novels for the prize. I am sure if ever a male-only literary award were announced, many amongst the established male writers would shun it for being inherently unfair.