Thursday, March 10, 2005

Oranges and lemons

Last Sunday's Observer carried an article on the Orange prize (link from Bookslut) which is worth commenting on in part.

For those who don't know, the Orange is one of the big three UK book prizes (the Booker and the Whitbread being the two others). It is awarded annually for a full-length novel written in English by a woman of any nationality. There is a longlist of 20 and a shortlist of 6, and the judges are all female too.

Over the ten years since it was established, the Orange prize has attracted all sorts of comment, much of it unfavourable. There are those who say it is just what women need, those who says it insults and demeans women, et cetera. All slightly tiresome.

What I want to do here is draw attention to a few points in the Observer article. For example, Anita Brookner, a Booker winner, is 'against positive discrimination', and argues that 'If a book is good, it will get published. If it is good it will get reviewed.'

Neither of these statements, I fear, is true. I have elsewhere provided lots of evidence to show that 'good' books (however you care to define 'good') are frequently rejected by publishers. We know this because some books which are rejected ten, twenty, or even more times eventually make it into print and are then highly acclaimed. But what of the 'good' books whose authors get fed up with sending out their ms? There undoubtedly are some, and those books never appear in print.

Neither is it true that all 'good' books get reviewed. There are plenty of excellent books which never get reviewed in the places that matter (hell, I've written a few myself). And there is reportedly a statistical bias in favour of reviewing books by men. As the Observer piece points out, in the week when the Orange prize was launched, back in 1996, one broadsheet newspaper carried 20 reviews; 19 of those were reviews of books written by men, and yet women write 70% of the novels published in the UK.

Another interesting comment is provided by Joanne Harris. 'As a reader,' she says, 'I often find the books on some prize shortlists impenetrable.' Join the club, darling. 'I think,' she adds, 'there may be a certain kind of reader/critic who is quite keen to announce his intellectual superiority to everyone else.' Dead right there, Joanne. You just have to be confident enough to ignore the blighters, and treat them with the contempt they deserve.

And finally, at the risk of sounding like a cracked gramophone record, I do have to repeat some obvious truths. The novelist Kate Mosse, who was one of the founders of the Orange prize, is quoted as saying that the winner 'only reflects the feelings of one group of people at a particular moment.' Which is just another way of saying that the winner is in no absolute sense 'better' than any of the other books entered; it just happens to be the one that the judges like best.

All of which is correct. But that's not the way the world sees it. There is a winner-take-all mechanism which is wonderful for the top lady, but not perhaps quite so good for other authors. Why? Because the world proceeds to behave as if the winner is somehow magnificent, while the runners-up, and the longlist, and all the other books entered, are somehow unworthy of anyone's attention.

For evidence, look at what happened to the first winner of the Orange prize, Anne Michaels. Anne Michaels took ten years to write Fugitive Pieces. Prior to winning the Orange prize, it had sold 1,000 copies and had received no reviews. Today it has sold 15 million copies worldwide. But what of the books which came second and third in that year? Does anyone remember their names?


Jai said...

Good piece, Michael. Do you, then, think the prize should be done away with? Personally I am ambivalent - as I don't agree with positive discrimination, BUT....

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