Monday, September 1, 2008

Orange Prize

By Jodie

The book world has been full of controversy recently. Jhumpa Lahiri won The Frank O’Connor award without the bother of a shortlist. The wrong winner was announced at the Welsh Book of the Year Award, devestating Tom Bullough. James Frey was allowed to publish a new book perfect for anyone who enjoys handing over their bank details to African princes requesting money by e-mail. Salman Rushdie won the Best of Booker and then his new novel ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ shockingly turned up in the running for this year’s Man Booker. Honestly, why don’t they just tell him they love him? It’s so obvious.

It was inevitable really that the judges of the UK’s award for fiction by women, the Orange prize, would try to get in on the act. Kristy Lang, the prizes chair this year, had a few choice things to say, intended to provoke debate. I’m late to the party, please excuse me, I stopped for beer to make it all bearable.

The Orange prize is always a great one for ravenous commentators to get their teeth into. Last year judge Muriel Gray complained that many women writers were confining themselves to domestic themes and lacked inventiveness. This attitude pretty much gives me the urge to bend someone’s finger back just to relieve the tension it causes me. An attitude like this ignores the fact that every year sees a new crop of misunderstood, crippled masculinity books being published. If you’re a well known male author and you put a middle aged white man, with failing health, a bad marriage and a poor career in your novel reviewers will congratulate you on a masterwork that explains humanity’s terrible condition. If you’re a modern woman who runs a household and you base a book around your these life experiences you get shunned and are accused of writing claustrophobic domestic dramas. This inequality in perception is a nice hearkening back to other hypocritical gender views like the idea that a man who sleeps around is a hero while a woman who does the same is a slut.

This year Kirsty Lang has suggested that it might be interesting to think about having male judges because ‘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.’. If I met Lang now I honestly don’t think I’d be able to do anything but gape at her in a massive show of flabbergast. The idea of having men judging an all female prize is surely contentious but is entirely eclipsed for me by this bright, literary woman talking about her whole gender as one massive generalisation. As a woman Lang assumes that she is a ‘normal’ example of womanhood, a typical example of her gender, making the fatal mistake that there is a universal norm that all woman have at their core. Assuming that she is a representative example of a woman she feels able to speak for her entire gender’s reading tastes and assert (as so many other misinformed individual have throughout history) what the collective ‘women’ want. It’s like years of critical gender theory just passed her by.

I don’t know about you but I’m pretty much sick of hearing about the ‘normal’ woman although she’s probably always fabulously dressed. She doesn’t like rock music, sport or sex as much as men. She has been planning her wedding since girlhood, drinks mostly wine and apparently now she can only enjoy books on certain subjects. She’s the reason I’ll often order pints of lager all night if I go out in a dress and the reason why my co-workers look doubtfully at my professionally highlighted hair when I mention liking screaming, metal music. I don’t like being told who I am and who I’m not, that I fit into the women’s straight jacket or the abnormal box, especially not by someone of my own gender who should know better. Lang is echoing the sentiments of pink razor commercials across the world, society has got women pegged and each woman is made to enjoy the same things.

Lang’s comment seems to suggest a belief that women only like and identify with the side of themselves which society identifies as overtly feminine when they are reading. Female judges may tend to overlook sci-fi and adventure novels because as females these books are not of interest to them, being so unfeminine and all. She never stops to think that perhaps it is the judges individual assessments of the books on offer that keeps books off the shortlist rather than some overarching bias of the entire female gender. By suggesting that content the judges don’t enjoy may be the reason why some novels get bounced from the Orange prize list she does her fellow judges and gender down again by suggesting that they are incapable of separating good writing and compelling plots from their own feelings about the subject matter. Is she honestly happy to imply that women are incapable of being objective about literature?

If Lang really believes women only like certain kinds of books what does she think fantastic female authors like Sarah Hall and Karin Slaughter are doing writing sci-fi, fantasy, hard core crime and other books outside the bounds of ‘what women want’? Perhaps she believes they are just shamelessly aping male authors, dedicating years to writing about subjects they aren’t really interested in. What does she feel they have to gain by writing books which apparently will not appeal to over half the book buying population of the world? Certainly not money.

For someone walking around at the Orange prize shooting their mouth off these deeply socialized comments are ill-judged and backward, coming from the female chair of the UK prize for the best in female writing they’re extremly worrying. When influential women repeat the stereotypical view that their gender thinks and feels in one unvaried way about any subject they give credence to the male view that all women are the same in many negative ways. I can only hope that new judges with diverse reading habits and high social awareness will be appointed to the prize next year.

If you’re looking for women who like to read and discuss everything try these links:

Eve’s Alexandria

Of Books and Bicycles

Classical Bookworm

So Many Books

The Hidden Side of the Leaf

Bookgirl’s Nightstand


Iliana said...

I've been so out of the loop recently I've missed out on all of these controversies. While I do love a good domestic drama (I'm thinking Elizabeth Taylor & Barbara Pym) I certainly would get bored if I wasn't exploring other genres. To think that women judges wouldn't know about other types of literature well enough to judge it is pretty silly. Let's hope the judges continue to look for excellence in writing in whatever genre the women authors choose.

Great article Jodie and thank you for the shout out!

Jodie said...

You're welcome, women bloggers like you help to abolish these myths the book industry likes to build. Glad you enjoyed the article (I ahve to thanks the Times and Bookslut for alerting me to these controversies).