Is A Female-Only Literature Prize Sexist?

Illustration for article titled Is A Female-Only Literature Prize Sexist?

Upon the release of this year's long-list for the Orange Broadband prize for women's fiction, a couple of English novelists are decrying the prize under the grounds that it's conceptually sexist (Zadie Smith, pictured, won the Orange in 2006 for On Beauty). Still Life scribe A.S. Byatt bitched about the prize to the Times of London, saying, "Such a prize was never needed" because it ghettoizes women's literature. Byatt is so against the prize on principle that she refuses to allow her books to be considered for the Orange at all. Novelist Tim Lott adds to Byatt's gripes in The Telegraph, saying the Orange is unnecessary because, "Women are predominant, in terms of numbers and power, in most of the major publishing houses and agencies. They sell most of the books, into a market that largely comprises women readers. Girls in schools are more literate than boys, and pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers."

But even if more books are written and purchased by women (Byatt's assumption that schoolchildren are taught more women's literature is just wrong...look at any high school reading list), the fact remains that only eleven women have won the Nobel Prize for literature, and that novels focusing on "women's issues" continue to be critically underrated. In the past ten years, three women have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (for those counting at home, that's 30%). Even the judges of the Orange Prize themselves are complaining about excessive number of "domestic dramas" written by women.

Kirsty Lang, the chair of a panel of judges (including, um, Lily Allen!) for the Orange Prize, told the Guardian, "Reading 120 books I did find myself thinking, 'Oh god, not another dead baby'...There were a hell of a lot of abused children and family secrets." But then Lang corrects herself, saying, "Yes, there were a lot of domestic dramas. Do I have a problem with that? Not really. Most fiction readers are women and we like our reading to reflect our experience. Women will write about domestic life because that is the reality of women's lives. I'd like to say the opposite, but it wouldn't be true."


But what makes one book inherently more valuable than any other? Does a subject matter of politics or war make for a categorically "better" novel than one about "abused children" and "family secrets?" Shouldn't the quality of the writing and the structural integrity of a book be the most important thing? Until all books are judged equally, I don't have a problem with women getting their own cash prize for fiction. Harriet Hastings, the "project director" of the Orange Prize had the best attitude towards the critics, "Although major prizes have been won by women, the value of the Orange is as a celebration of women's fiction." I'll drink to that.

Women's Fiction Prize 'Infected By Misery Memoirs' [Times of London]
Tim Lott: Orange Prize For Women Is Sexist [Telegraph]
Women's Fiction Prize 'Infected By Misery Memoirs' [Guardian]

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When I read Zadie's bio after reading White Teeth and realized she was actually a year younger that I was, I wanted to cry for all the novels I would never write.