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Women's Book Prizes Fire Up Literary Canon

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Literary prizes for women continue to stir controversy about the benefit of putting a female prefix in front of a writer's work. But the founder of the Orange Prize says it helps flag an ongoing absence of women from serious short lists.

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Literary prizes for women continue to stir controversy about the benefit of putting a female prefix in front of a writer's work. But the founder of the Orange Prize says it helps flag an ongoing absence of women from serious short lists.
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Kate Mosse

(WOMENSENEWS)--There's one--the Willa--for women writing stories set in the West, offered by the Colorado nonprofit Women Writing the West.

The $25,000 Rona Jaffe prize for up-and-comers is bestowed annually to a handful of writers by the foundation named after the famous author.

The Gift of Freedom from A Room of Her Own Foundation in Placitas, N.M., aims to fund a female artist's full-time work. Meanwhile, the Elisabeth A. McPherson Award for Women Writers hosts female authors in a Victorian house in Washington state each November.

There's no way to count all the prizes that, by honoring female writers, work to push women into the canon of serious literature.

Many support the beginning of a career or a project, helping a writer cover child care expenses or take time off from work. Others offer retreat time and space so that she can write in an inspiring and focused setting.

Perhaps the best known of all is the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, an international award named for the British mobile technology company that sponsors it. Since 1996 it has hailed novels written in English by women, including those who are transgender.

In June England's Rose Tremain won the Orange for her novel "The Road Home." A separate Orange Prize for first-time authors went to Joanna Kavenna for "Inglorious."

Shortage of Women on Prize Lists

Kate Mosse, the Orange's co-founder and co-director, said the idea for a prize to celebrate international writing by women occurred to her in 1991, when the U.K.'s Man Booker Prize short list of six honorees had no female writers. That year's long list was never made public. "It wasn't that this was a bad thing, per se, but more that the judges had not even noticed there were no women (on their short list)."

The Man Booker short list that caught Mosse's eye was hardly an exception. Among the 41 winners since the Booker's inception in 1969 (there were two winners in 1975 and 1992; the 2008 prize has yet to be awarded), only 13 women took the top honor. Among them is the most recent, Anne Enright.

The unbalanced ratio for the Man Booker--which for four decades has given awards to the best fiction published in the British Commonwealth and Ireland--parallels a larger trend.

Of 104 persons honored by the Nobel Prize in Literature, only 11 have been female, the latest being Doris Lessing in 2007. In the 91-year history of the Pulitzer Prize, female authors won 27 times for fiction. Women won 12 of 37 National Book Critics Circle fiction awards and 15 of 57 National Book Awards for fiction.

With its all-female jury and long list, the Orange was controversial when it debuted in 1996. It continues to spur an annual debate in the blogosphere and wider media about whether adding the female prefix to a writer's identification could limit the universality of her work.

"The Orange Prize is a sexist con-trick" was the headline for one recent column in the U.K.'s Telegraph.

All-Female Jury for Orange

A June article in the Birmingham Post, a British news blog, argued that the award's existence diminishes the quality of novels that receive worldwide attention with the Orange stamp of approval, because--with its all-female jury--"not having a male perspective on a piece of fiction surely handicaps the objective quality of a novel."

A.S. Byatt, whose 1990 novel, "Possession," won the Man Booker Prize, called the Orange Prize sexist when the award debuted and doesn't permit her publisher to submit her books to it.

Sadie Jones, one of the authors short-listed for this year's Orange Prize, told journalists she was flattered and proud to be a close contender for this year's honor. But she suggested a counterpart literary prize for men to encourage boys to read.

The question of whether single-gender awards are still needed to transform a literary culture comes amid a boom of fiction written by women, including what's characterized as "chick lit." Women also form the majority of U.S. book-buyers and are becoming the majority in publishing house staffs.

"There was never a gender gap in terms of the volume of books published," said the Orange's Mosse, who is a former book publisher and the author of two novels, "Labyrinth" and "Sepulchre." "On average, in the U.K., 60 percent of novels published are by women."

She said the issue is not the number of books authored by women but the shortage of those books by women that are honored and promoted by literary culture. That is how books get in the hands of readers, and how the canon of literature is built.

Promoting Roster of Female Writers

Mosse said the Orange has promoted hundreds of outstanding female novelists from all over the world and drawn millions of readers to its winners' works. The roster includes Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy, Lionel Shriver, Ann Patchett and Anne Michaels.

Mosse also suggested that the Orange may have shaken up the Man Booker Prize. While admitting no clear cause-and-effect can be proven, she points to a BBC Radio 4 series that commissioned a study three years ago for the 10th anniversary of the Orange.

"What they discovered was that, prior to the Orange, only 11 percent of novels short-listed for the Booker Prize were by women," Mosse said. "Since Orange, that figure had risen to 33 percent."

Elif Batuman, a freelance writer, won a $25,000 Rona Jaffe award in 2007, which she's using to support herself while she works on a book "about the pursuit of literature" that's "somewhere between a novel and a memoir."

While citing major gains for aspiring female writers in the last 50 years--such as the lessened pressure to get married by a certain age--Batuman said a gender gap nonetheless persists in publishing, and that "surely justifies initiatives like women's magazines or awards, insofar as they need justification."

As an example, she recounts the story a female novelist friend who was irritated by the blurbs on the jacket of her book that described it as a "coming-of-age story" with "spiritual themes."

The friend contended that if the author of the same book had been male, it would have been called a Bildungsroman, that is, a novel about the author's early character development and personality, "that raises religious issues."

"This may be a partial oversimplification," Batuman said, "but there is truth in it."

Anna Clark is a journalist and fiction writer living in Detroit, Michigan. She edits the literary and social justice Web site, Isak.