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Does A Women’s Fiction Prize Set Women Back?

After all, women are winning other literary prizes just fine.

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On Wednesday, women’s fiction will have a new prizewinner. Does that make us losers?

The question may sound paradoxical. After all, the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) is a big deal. Now sponsored by Baileys (Orange, a telecommunications company, pulled out last year), the honor comes with 30,000 pounds, as well as a bronze statuette and the dubious title of being judged the best full-length novel written in the English language in the past year by a woman.

And therein lies the rub. When the award was first conceived in January 1992, it definitely made sense. The shortlist for the 1991 Booker Prize, the UK’s equivalent of the Pulitzer and National Book Awards rolled into one, had been announced and none of the contenders had been written by women. (This despite the fact that Linda Hogan’s Mean Spirit was a Pulitzer finalist that year.) Even cumulatively, by 1992, only 10 percent of the Booker shortlist had been penned by women.

This mattered because prizes affect the business. Not only are they nice for the winner, awards like the Booker publicize books – many books – from the long list on up. They get people talking. They get people buying. And so a group of authors, booksellers, librarians, and journalists decided to band together to remedy the situation. An award for women’s fiction, they theorized, would take books written by women off the paperback-only stack and get them some attention. At least, that was the idea. And the prize, the Orange, was born.

And it has worked. The Booker, the prize’s yardstick, has now been given to women three of the last five years (Hilary Mantel twice and most recently to Lydia Davis). Women now not only consistently make the shortlist, they do so from a huge range of styles and backgrounds (comparing Sarah Waters’ lesbian gothics to A.S. Byatt’s densely packed historicals is almost as impossible as setting Canadian Esi Edugyan’s Weimar German jazz against Emma Donoghue’s spare Irish-rooted prose).

In fact, we’re in danger of a backlash now. As women win the regular honors, a woman-only prize may be seen as less valuable – a form of ghettoization that cheapens the product it seeks to elevate. If the Women’s Fiction award becomes the literary equivalent of the “Miss Congeniality” trophy, it could drag down the value of women’s writing in general. How long before people – readers, critics, booksellers even – start saying, “Well, it’s not bad for a woman’s prizewinner.” Right?

Not so fast. Despite the Booker’s strides, we’re far from gender equity. The nonprofit group VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts has been chronicling gender bias in publishing since 2010, both in terms of books reviewed in major publications and book reviewers, and the numbers – while improving – are atrocious. Although, by multiple accounts, approximately 60 percent of all published fiction is by women – roughly the same breakdown that most authorities make of the fiction audience  – the representation in the media skews far the other way. Roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of book page attention is still handed to works by male authors. And that attention, like that of awards, translates to sales. Column inches in newspapers and magazines and, yes, blogs, are vital to the livelihood of writers. Everyday “midlist” writers, not necessarily prizewinners. You. Me. Us.

Of course, some theorists – such as Alyssa Rosenburg in Think Progresssuggest that even the VIDA count may court some backlash. I’m not sure I care. It might be extreme to compare the Women’s Fiction prize to affirmative action, but the parallel holds. For two presidential elections, the U.S. has chosen an African American for the top spot. While that’s surely a sign of improvement, that doesn’t mean that racism has been dispelled entirely. (If you think it does, you’re white.) And maybe Hilary Mantel is our Obama.

Yes, there are dangers that come with segregation – even self-segregation. And there will come a time when we are ready to abandon a gender-specific honor. We’re not there yet. As a woman, as well as an author, I know I’m waiting with bated breath for Wednesday’s announcement. I’m keeping my eyes on the prize.


Clea Simon is the author of 13 novels. The most recent is Grey Dawn (Severn House).

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