Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Fiction of Women's Writing

BBC article by Keily Oakes



The Orange Prize for Fiction honours only women writers - but in these days of supposed equality, is there still a need for a single sex award?

The Orange Prize was founded when no female writers made the shortlist for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1991.

In its 33-year history the Booker has honoured 12 female authors including Iris Murdoch, Anita Brookner and Arundhati Roy.

And one of the UK's other major literature prizes, the Whitbread, has only given two women the top prize since 1985.

The Nobel Prize for Literature has seen just nine women receive the honour in its 103-year history, the last being Polish author writer Wislawa Szymborska in 1996.

So after much discussion and hand-wringing in the publishing world it was decided that a women-only prize was necessary, to be judged by female peers.

Orange Prize co-founder and honorary director Kate Mosse told BBC News Online that in the year women were omitted from the Booker shortlist there was much consternation from both sexes.

It was felt some outstanding writing had been overlooked.

"We thought that despite the fact women published a great deal of fiction, and the majority of consumers and library lenders are women, the genre was being under-represented," said Ms Mosse.

Kate Mosse is a voracious reader of all types of books
"There is no agenda with the prize, it is just about good writing by women no matter what audience it appeals to.

"And because it does not rely on marketing, as much of publishing does these days, books that do not get press attention are still in with a chance."

But although women may not be leading the pack in terms of winning literary prizes and accolades, the thirst for female fiction has not abated.

Out of the top 25 best-sellers for the week ending 24 May, 15 were written by women, ranging from Martina Cole's thriller Maura's Game to Jackie Collins latest "bonkbuster" Deadly Embrace.

And then there is the much-derided term "chick-lit", often referring to lighter tales of friendship, love and dieting.

The book that can take much of the credit for the success of the genre is Bridget Jones's Diary.

Although critically acclaimed, Helen Fielding's novel, and those of Marion Keyes and Freya North, sparked a deluge of copycat books - marketed with pastel-coloured covers.

And it is their vast quantities - reminscent of the prolific Black Lace and Mills and Boon series - that became an issue for critics who felt the genre was damaging the reputation of "serious" female authors.

But Ms Mosse, who is also a BBC presenter, said she did not think the so-called chick-lit books had a detrimental effect on women's literature.

"Some of them are extremely well written and there is a market for them.

"Nobody would think to criticise books aimed primarily at men, such as Andy McNab."

The BBC's recent Big Read list of the nation's 100 best-loved books contained 33 women authors - covering all genres, from the classic Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte to modern novels such as Donna Tartt's A Secret History.

Orange conducted its own poll, asking readers for their favourite book written by a woman, with many of the favourites from the two surveys corresponding.

Ms Mosse said: "I was pleased that the Big Read list did contain so many women because a previous poll by Waterstones had very few women on it.

"There is clearly a shared reading of books written by women which comes out when people are asked to choose their most-loved books."

This year, the Whitbread prize was won by a woman biographer, Claire Tomalin, who beat her husband novelist Michael Frayn.

Current Orange shortlisted writer Carol Shields was on the Booker shortlist for 2002, with one other woman, Sarah Waters.

But neither won, and there was general surprise that Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man was not on the shortlist.

So there are no plans to give up the Orange Prize just yet.


Brian M Logan

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