The Orange Prize for Fiction?

The week the New York Times ran an op-ed, cleverly titled “Prize or Prejudice” on British fiction award, the Orange Prize.  The award is considered controversial, perhaps prejudiced, because it is awarded only to female authors. Even more problematic, is the fact that article author, Cynthia Ozick, is on the shortlist for a 2012 short prize.

The article attempts to chronicle different viewpoints on the prize, but sounds pretty condescending and negative to me. Maybe it’s easy to knock a prize when you are on the short list to get one? I might be a little sensitive to people calling it “just a woman’s prize” because of people calling Smith College “just a girl’s school”.

Feminism seems to be the basis for arguments for and against the prize. Naysayers think a prize specifically for woman is demeaning and sexist. After all there is no prize open for only male authors and women are not a minority. Proponents want to celebrate women’s fiction and boost the book sales of female authors.

The prize was invented 17 years ago, when a co-ed group of authors started talking about the disparity between the number of women publishing and the number of women winning the top fiction prizes.  The result of many conversations was the Orange Prize, first awarded in 1996. The first prize awarded by women for women. the list of winners, and women nominate on the short list, is pretty impressive.

In a weak attempt to defend the prize, Cynthia Ozick points out there are all kinds of writers awards that are exclusive to specific groups of people. There are prizes for Jewish writers, black writers, teenagers, preschoolers, and more. Ozick argues women are different because they belong to all the groups, and don’t have a unified culture.

I don’t know. I’m shaking my head as I type, because I can’t figure out exactly what I think about that claim or the prize itself. Mostly, I think prizes are there to make people happy, and that isn’t a bad thing. I also think celebration women, separate from men is generally empowering if done in an authentic and inclusive way (i.e. all kinds of women from many different cultures.)

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “The Orange Prize for Fiction?

  1. The conversation definitely does get tricky whenever you have prizes/awards/scholarships only open to a certain group of people. The intentions can be good (like scholarships for gay/black/what have you students) but sometimes it just ends up singling them out and positioning that group as separate or set apart. That’s more understandable with cultural groups, but like the article, said, women are not a cultural group, they’re half of the population. More than half, in the U.S.

    I think lifting women up right now is an important thing, because most of the world is still sexist, both overtly and subtly. We need to have conversations about the fact that women deserve recognition too. But we have to be careful about getting used to having all these special prizes and honors for women. Someday, we have to hope that awards will be given without regard to gender, and in order for that to happen we have to stop setting male and female up as too different to be judged by the same standards.

    • Really fantastic observations!

      Where I disagree with you, is the idea that someday we shouldn’t have prizes specifically for women. The difference in my mind between a scholarship and prize, is that a scholarship exists as an equalizer of sorts while a prize (to me) signifies celebration. I see nothing sexist, or particularly biased, about celebrating women’s literature.

      Even if the world is purged of sexism, I think there is still something nice about an event that specifically honors female authors. Women are not a minority or a sub group. But there is still something that seems different about literature written by women, something that is special.

      I don’t know, I’m still working out what I think.

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