The Genre the Orange Doesn’t See

Maybe it’s time to let men judge the Orange prize, says the current chair of judges. Her reasoning?

“I’m open-minded about it. It would be an interesting debate for organisers to have. Seventy per cent of fiction is bought by women, so having a panel of women judges means they know what women like,” she said.

“But I think it could be quite interesting to have a man on the panel.

“The one disadvantage to an all-female jury is that there are certain books that women like … the judging could be tilted a bit against science fiction.”

The obvious response is that you don’t need to add a man to address that particular bias, you just need to pick different women; you’d think that if someone has noticed women are writing this stuff, they might be able to guess that women are interested in it, too. But given that my immediate reaction to the longlist this year was “Where’s The Carhullan Army?” (and my reaction to the shortlist was to be disappointed that The End of Mr Y didn’t make the cut), anything that encourages the Orange to recognize a broader range of work written by women is good in my book.

EDIT: And for the record, this year’s winner: The Road Home by Rose Tremain

7 thoughts on “The Genre the Orange Doesn’t See

  1. I agree that the Orange Prize needs to bring in new judging voices but I’m heartily disappointed that Kirsty Lang thinks that women’s literary opinions are too parochial to provide them. Suggesting that ‘there are certain books that women like…’ is belittling and insulting. Also clearly nonsensical, since women have written the science fiction, and serious literary fiction, that the prize shys away from. If there was ever an argument against have having the prize at all, that is it.

    However, I do think they should consider making novels by men eligible for the prize. (Ooooh controversial!) I much, much prefer the model of the French Prix Femina, which has an all-woman jury but is open to novels by either sex. This makes it far more interesting IMHO and turns the focus onto the wide perspectives of the female reader, rather than on an idea of ‘fiction for and by women’ created by the publishing industry. It leaves the power of decision-making in the hands of women, but also allows the prize to move beyond the controversy of sexism. I’m sure this would improve the status of the women who won the prize, and destigmatize the gender of the author.

  2. That’s a really intriguing idea, actually; I hadn’t heard of the Prix Femina before. I’m not sure I agree it would enable the prize to move beyond accusations of sexism (“well, we know why female author Q really beat male author R …”), but it would be interesting to see what shortlists such a revised Orange would come up with.

  3. Yes, I suppose you’re right. There would always be people who were suspiscious about the gender politics and, perhaps, rightly, since it is possible that some judges would be biased by their perception of the prize’s founding philosophy. Oh, for a perfect world…

    But looking at the last decade of Prix Femina winners, there is a pretty even split between male and female winners: 4-6 (for the prize for the novel originally in French), and 6-4 (for the prize for the novel in translation). On that basis it would seem to be possible to avoid bias.

  4. Victoria’s idea is interesting but seems against the notion of what the Orange Prize was supposed to be (as I understand it, at any rate): a prize for the best novel by a woman from the Commonwealth in the past year.

    Now, to me, that doesn’t say “Novel women like the most”, it says “Best novel by a woman”. Which makes the question of whether men should be judges kind of obvious — do men read and enjoy novels by women? Yes! Then they should be prospective judges.

    Note that the Tiptree Award has pretty much always had a man on the judging panel, though that choice has always seemed to me to have a whiff of tokenism to it.

    And of course it is silly to suppose that having women as judges will necessarily close out options for SF — having anti-SF snobs as judges does that. Sven Birkerts isn’t a woman, I don’t think, but his presence on a judging panel doesn’t seem likely to lead to fair consideration of SF.

  5. Rich, I agree with you that my suggestion would go against the founding charter of the prize. Tis a symptom of my growing uncertainty about the validity of a prize exclusively for women at all. My problem is that the Orange has become less about the best novel by a woman, and more about the best novel by a woman that ‘appeals to women’ and deals with ‘women’s issues’. I think this is a direction the prize has taken markedly in recent years (I have read the full shortlist for 4 years running now), probably in an unconscious response to the growing numbers of ‘literary’ novels by women on other prize shortlists. I suspect that the Orange now sees itself as a forum to champion ‘women’s writing’ (as in, by women, for women), rather than writing by women. In other words, it rewards the kinds of novels that are still being ignored by the mainstream. I think it desperately needs a shake-up of massive proportions.

    Perhaps we could call for a compromise. Two prizes: a prize for the best novel by a woman, judged by both men and women, and a prize for the best novel by a man or woman, judged only by women. Now that would be exciting. :-)

  6. Rich – the Orange Prize is open to Americans, to any woman writing in English in fact. It’s the Man Booker which is open to British and Commonwealth citizens. So in fact more writers are eligible for the former than the latter.

  7. Conflicting thoughts:
    1) What is women’s writing? Other than writing by women, what else if anything distinguishes it from other writing? From men’s writing, and if there is something intrinsic to ‘women’s writing’ is it also possible that some writing by women may not be ‘women’s writing’?

    I get the same feeling as when I hear that Barack Obama is seeking ‘the black vote’ or Hillary Clinton was getting ‘the women’s vote’ as if this is some uniform thing. Shouldn’t we be past all that?

    2) The situation last year with the Hugo nominations highlights that there is a place for an Orange-type Prize still. Clearly many people still don’t recognise the great contribution women writers make to contemporary literature, and many feel this very strongly as an injustice.

    So, what to do? For me the only way forward is to recognise that ‘Women’s issues’ and hence ‘Women’s writing’ includes such things as Climate Change, Civil Liberties and War as much as it includes Childcare (*) or Work equality or dating the hunk from Finance. Hence Frankenstein is women’s writing as much as Pride & Prejudice, Laura Lippman as much as Helen Fielding, Sarah Hall as much as Anne Tyler.

    *Note also that many men are affected by and concerned about such issues too.

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