Orange Prize Sexism

by John Boland

Window and floor displays in most bookshops are almost invariably a sea of pink, peach and yellow covers – thereby signifying the latest chick lit titles and thus denoting women writers. On the other end of the literary spectrum, women have been snaffling up most of the prestigious awards – Hilary Mantel winning the Man Booker prize for Wolf Hall, Elizabeth Stout getting the Pulitzer for her story collection Olive Kitteridge, Alice Munro named as the Man Booker international winner, and Marilynne Robinson’s Home honoured as Orange Prize novel of the year.

That last competition, of course, is only open to women and was set up in 1996 because of a perceived bias  against women writers, though it’s obviously not a perception that’s been shared by either publishers or prize givers, who continue to promote and reward their women authors.

Neither is it shared by Annie Proulx, one of the most distinguished female fiction writers at work today, who as far back as 1997 (just after the Orange Prize was created) rejected the notion of a woman acquiring a unique role by writing about and for other women.

Spurning all “isms” – whether  whether they be feminism, multiculturalism, historicism, deconstructionism “and a dozen other current whingeing or aggressive ideologies” – Proulx deplored the imposition of “gender boundaries” that sought to “remove men from the equation” and thus to fabricate a “distortion and reduction of the human condition.”

Indeed, the idea of women being inherently more tender and co-operative than men struck Proulx as “wishful propaganda.” Pointing out that “having a vagina and breasts instead of penis and testicles” did not necessarily bestow a special sensitivity or insight on women writers, she noted that “we are not just men or women, we are all human” and that “in the tension between men and women and in their fitting together lies the richness of life and literature.”

Proulx expressed these thoughts in the Observer over twelve years ago, yet in the Guardian last week Orange Prize co-founder Kate Mosse was still arguing that this sexist award could still be justified – that, despite the success of so many women writers, “gender and writing and gender and reading continues to be a legitimate area of analysis.”

And her reasoning for this? Apparently it’s because of the “many more occasions” when all the main prizes have gone to  male authors. Perhaps the judges just thought that on those occasions their books were better, though Mosse seems unable to countenance that notion.

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