Is the Orange Prize for Fiction Sexist?

The Orange Prize for Fiction is exclusively awarded to women for contributions to literature. According to Orange, the reason for this is:

When setting up the prize, we wanted to celebrate women’s critical views as well as their writing. And it makes an interesting point of difference with other prizes.

The Times today reported that celebrated author, A.S. Byatt has denounced the prize, saying that “Such a prize was never needed.” Indeed, both A.S. Byatt and Booker prize (actually called the Man Booker Prize, but both men and women are equally eligible!) winner, Anita Brookner have declined offers to enter their books for the Orange prize.

Byatt has a point. Positive discrimination is just that, discrimination. Putting the word “positive” in front of it does not make it a good thing! 😉

The Orange prize does no favours for either men or women. As John Sutherland says: “ghettoising women writers did them more harm them good.”

Feminism was always about asserting equal rights, and being judged on an equal footing with men. Setting up a separate prize for women is not only outdated, it is also extremely patronising. In the modern era, and in a meritocracy, men and women should be judged equally, based on talent, not gender.

For example, the 2005 prize was awarded to Lionel Shriver‘s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which is one of my favourite books. I would highly recommend it, and anyone who has read it knows that it stands on its own merits and does not need to be commended simply because its author is female.

If we want to celebrate women’s fiction, the way to do it would be to judge their writing according to a universal standard. I can only imagine the backlash if there was a separate prize exclusively for men. It seems ironic that in the 19th century, female authors such as the Brontë sisters had to write under male pseudonyms to compete with their male counterparts, and yet in 2008, such discrimination (“positive” or otherwise!) still exists.

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One comment

  1. Neil · March 19, 2008

    “We Need To Talk About Kevin” was a fantastic book.

    Though if you hadn’t worked out the twist by the second or third chapter, you hadn’t been reading closely enough…

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