And the winner is…
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.