Do prizes for women writers encourage equality or promote sexism?

By Harriet Staff

Jean Hannah Edelstein, writing for the Guardian, tackles the thorny subject of The Orange Prize, the UK’s fiction prize awarded annually to a woman writer. Edelstein writes that she has always agreed with A.S. Byatt that “it assumes there is a feminine subject matter,” and this assumption betrays the sexism behind the apparent good intentions of the prize. But, she continues, the recent VIDA count and a number of other literary incidents have lately highlighted the inequality in the writing world:

I was also perturbed to see that an LA Times article about the Orange Prize-shortlisted author Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad winning the National Book Critics' Circle fiction prize last week was illustrated with a photograph of Jonathan Franzen, because, as the article's headline – Egan Beats Franzen ... – seemed to indicate, his loss was considered more newsworthy than her win. Then there's the fact that David Nicholls's One Day has been such a runaway success among both men and women, despite the fact that it succeeds as a novel because of its careful adherence to the tropes of so-called women's commercial fiction (but, hey, it has a manly orange cover).

And while she agrees with Alain de Bottom that there is nothing distinctively male or female in the act of writing itself, Edelstein argues that the act of writing itself is far from the whole story:

Unfortunately, the evidence shows that the experiences of male and female writers after they set their pens down are often distinctively different. That's why I've changed my mind about the Orange prize. I still agree with Byatt that the idea of female-specific subject matter is spurious, but I don't think that's what the prize rewards. As long as women writers are forced to continue the exhausting battle for equal billing, they need the Orange prize to demonstrate the accomplishment and variety of their work.

Originally Published: March 28th, 2011