Women’s Prize for Fiction – The Orange is a Lemon

And the winner is…


…a woman.

Isn’t it time that the Women’s Prize for Fiction was cancelled?

I’ve never been in favour of positive discrimination. Victims of discrimination are not black, white, gay, atheist, etc., they’re human beings. Positive discrimination attempts to balance discrimination against one group by discriminating against another. It does nothing to correct individual wrongs, just creates more victims. It does nothing to persuade those who discriminate that they’ve behaved wrongly. Just the opposite, in fact; it vindicates their behaviour, and creates a power struggle. Discrimination is an absolute, but whether a particular instance of discrimination is positive or negative depends upon your viewpoint. The right way to deal with discrimination is to identify it, correct it, punish those responsible, and put in place processes that make sure it can’t be repeated.

At the same time, we live in an imperfect world, and I would accept that positive discrimination has sometimes helped to bring about a positive outcome in areas where there is a definite imbalance in opportunities for different groups. But is that still the case in literature?

In painting and music women have, in the past, not just been discriminated against; they’ve been effectively shut out. Can you think of the name of a great (by which I mean famous) female artist or composer from before the later part of the twentieth century? In music, with the exception of Hildegard in the twelfth century, the best I can do is Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelsohn. In painting I’m really struggling. I know there were many fine Pre-Raphaelite women artists, such as Evelyn De Morgan, but up until recent times you wouldn’t have known that the Pre-Raphaelites weren’t exclusively male. In literature it’s different. Think of famous writers, and after Shakespeare and Dickens many of the names that come to mind will be women, from Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters through to Sylvia Plath and Doris Lessing. Now, while women may not have been shut out of literature in the way they were shut out of painting and music, I’m well aware that they have suffered a great deal of discrimination and disadvantage. And I’m happy to believe that this was still going on at the time that the then Orange prize was set up. But I look around me now and I see that women writers proliferate. They’re not just on an equal footing with men; they dominate the market. They do pretty well for themselves in all of the major awards.

So why do we still have the Women’s Prize for Fiction? Just what is its purpose in today’s equal market? Could it be that it’s been so successful, makes so much money, that the people who run it don’t want to give up the gravy train? It’s not as if this is the only fiction award that only accepts entries from women. I might never be in a position where my work is being nominated for the top prizes, but there a number of prizes at entry level that are women only too. It seems to me that this is unacceptable, and it’s time that it stopped. These prizes will have been started to fight discrimination, but they’ve ended up promulgating it – all they’ve done is to flip things on their head. I don’t believe this is an acceptable outcome. There’s one way to put it right though. Gender specific literature prizes should be outlawed. And then we can get on with taking the fight for gender equality where it really needs to go – to the boardrooms, to senior management, to the Cabinet and to parliament. To those organisations and professions where women don’t get a fair chance. And also to those where men don’t get a fair chance.

However good a writer Ali Smith may be, the competion itself is a farce. Like the new sponsor’s product, it’s OK at first, but too much of it and you start to feel sick. I would have had a lot more respect for her if she had got up on the podium and told them where to stick their sexist award.

About literarylad

Graham Wright is a freelance writer and author. His first novel, Single Point Perspective, is set in and around the city of Manchester, where he lived and worked for more than fifteen years. His second, Moojara, is set in and around the world, but mostly centres on Perth, Western Australia. Both are works of dramatic literary fiction - imaginative, serious and thoughtful, but with a sense of humour. Graham is currently living in north Shropshire, where he is busy working on novel number three.
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8 Responses to Women’s Prize for Fiction – The Orange is a Lemon

  1. L. M. Webb says:

    I’m female and I agree with you. In an equal market there’s just no need for it.

    • literarylad says:

      Thank you. I read somewhere that a high proportion of books, even amongst those by women, are either about men, or written from a male perspective (this was given as a justifications for the Women’s Prize). I can’t understand why this would be (and I don’t think it does justify women only competitions). I’m on my second book at the moment. In my first, the main character was a man. In the second, I have two main characters; one of each. For my next book I’m planning a female protagonist. Making her credible will involve some careful thought, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to achieve it.

  2. Because nobody in the northern hemisphere pays any attention to writers in the southern hemisphere, we had to create book awards. As a result, some of our best authors have seen the light of day, not only within Australia but the rest of the publisher-driven literary world. Currently we have about eighteen writing awards (not counting YA and children’s books) and three major writing awards for women, Barbara Jefferis Award, Miles Franklin Award and Stella Prize. As far as I am concerned, it is not gender, it is the originality and execution of the writing which counts every time.

  3. So if there is such a plethora of writing awards, why particularly single out awards for women? For example, why not LGBTIQA+ awards, Indigenous awards, The Christy Awards? Maybe their prestige isn’t great enough for the other ‘half of the population’ to consider protesting.

    • literarylad says:

      I wasn’t really aware of those awards, but I would point out that it isn’t the other half of the population who would protest in those cases; rather the other ninety-percent(in the case of LGBT)! Using gay literature as an example, there’s a case for using awards to give it a necessary boost; bring it out of the closet, as it were. Many writers (including my favourite, E M Forster) wrote about gay love, but didn’t dare publish because of the negative attitudes of the time (which still exist in places, hence the need to promote the freedom to write about non-hetero lifestyles).
      Awards can be used to level up imbalances in publishing. It may once have been so with women-only awards (in which times, I would have supported them). But now, all they serve to do is to unfairly keep a significant proportion of the writing opportunities from approximately half of the population, based upon an assumption about what their genitals look like (something I believe many within the LGBTQI+ community would say is the business of the individual, and no-one else). The argument that there aren’t enough women writers fell away years ago, and women-only awards are, like so much else in the feminist world, much more about privilege than equality.

  4. The feminist world seems to overshadow the world of ordinary women. However, I do think men have had a far better literary run over the millennia than women and we are making up for lost time. On a more personal level I take the whole thing with a grain of salt and get on with my life, accepting that the world will never unify over politics, religion, colour or gender. There is no hope of abolishing niche or specific literary awards unless funding runs out. The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021 is supported by Bailey’s and NatWest so… Our discussion has been interesting, Graham, but I doubt we would ever reach an agreement on this subject. I will finish up by saying that I would not bat an eye if male writers decided to instigate a Men Only writing award – good luck with that – and I would certainly read the winning book. Vivre et laisser vivre! 🙂 Gretchen.

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