The Orange Prize—formally known as the Women's Prize for Fiction—is a British fiction award presented each year to one outstanding female novelist. Winners are chosen by a panel of five women, and receive £30,000 and some sort of fancy statue. The idea is to draw attention to female authors, who are largely overlooked by other mainstream, non-gendered, elite literature awards. Naturally, some people (a strange confluence of smart feminists and dumbass anti-feminists) look at the Orange Prize and see a patronizing, separate-but-equal undercurrent of, "Oh, cute! It thinks it's people!"
In a New York Times op-ed this week, recent Orange Prize shortlister Cynthia Ozick quotes British novelist A.S. Byatt on why the award is bullshit:
"The Orange Prize is a sexist prize. You couldn't found a prize for male writers. The Orange Prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter - which I don't believe in." Responding to the recent report that Orange, a telecommunications company, will no longer sponsor the award, this principled writer demurs yet again. "I shan't mourn it. ... Women should be allowed to have everything men have, but they shouldn't be allowed to have their own little sheep pens."
Okay, sure. That's a familiar attitude, but I'm not sure if it's a productive one. As Ozick responds, "The motive behind these necessary masquerades is hardly an urge to hide. Instead, it is a cry for recognition and a means of evading belittlement, or worse yet, the curse of not being noticed at all."
I do have a strong negative reaction to certain ways that female artists are culturally segregated—the critical reaction to Bridesmaids, for example. When someone makes a list of "funny women movies" or writes that "These are smart, funny women!" what they're basically saying is, "Holy shit! Here's a horse that can play the clarinet!" Except, you guys, OF COURSE HORSES CAN FUCKING PLAY THE CLARINET. Horses have been elite clarinetists since the invention of horse lips. The only reason people think that horses can't play the clarinet is because people like you tell them they can't, so they don't try, and if they do try and they become great, you never call them back for a second audition to your metaphorical clarinet choir. (Secondary reason: hooves.)
That said, it's valid—and valuable, I think—to make space for prizes like this, essentially greenhouses for talent for a marginalized group. And it is absolutely not reliant on some assumption that any subject matter qualifies as "feminine." That assumption is what already circumscribes public response to female novelists. Now, obviously as someone who makes her living writing for a "lady blog," my stance on intentional feminist spaces is pretty clear. I'm fine with it. I also understand that the goal of feminism isn't separatism but integration. No, women aren't monolithic, women don't constitute a "culture," but we're certainly fucking treated as though we do. And reclaiming some of that cultural space to assert, "This is what women are really like. Here is our plurality of voices," is completely legit.
There have always been badass female novelists, but in the general consciousness, they acquire this vague patina of mediocrity. Woolf is a lighter Joyce, Wharton is a lighter James, Arundhati Roy is a lighter Rushdie. When modern female novelists get massive, worldwide recognition for their work, it's usually an "Oh, this is a good book!" kind of thing. Boy wizards. "Chick lit." You know, not "serious works of art." In other words, women have yet to make great strides in the type of books that most people hate. Not that women can't and don't make those books—they make the shit out of them, obv—they just don't achieve the level of elite recognition that male authors do.
As our own Erin Gloria Ryan pointed out:
The literary canon is so dominated by women that a full 8 of Modern Library's Top 100 Fiction Novels were written by women. A whopping 3 of the last 12 recipients of the Man Booker Prize have been women. And a dominating 12 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1909.
So my feeling, as a lady-writer, is LET THE LADIES HAVE OUR FUCKING PRIZE. Women can be successful novelists, but we don't win shit. And until we fix that, cultural institutions like the Orange Prize aren't "ghettoizing" women, they're bringing women INTO the fold of award-winning novelists. It's inclusive, not exclusive. The alternative is...what? Sitting and waiting for systemic inequalities to magically evaporate? As long as the prize is judged in a serious, non-gendered way—as long as it's not like, "This book wins because it has the most shopping in it! Weeeeeee!"—it's merely drawing attention to the underappreciated. Pushing back against inequality does not create inequality, and to say so is to ignore that there's a problem. Suggesting that a prize for female novelists creates a barrier between the sexes overlooks the fact that women are already segregated. "Oh, but if you give hungry people food then they won't know how to find food!" Yeah, but...THEY DON'T HAVE FUCKING FOOD.
Do I think that women are incapable of succeeding on their own merits? That we need "hand-outs" to achieve? Of course not. First of all, "hand-outs" are not a real thing (and if they are, could someone please direct me to the federal hand-out dispensary?). I'm a woman and a successful writer and I got here because my work is good. But the idea that if I wrote a novel it would automatically be taken less seriously than if I changed my name to Kevin is supremely fucked. So hell yes I would like my prize.