Orange Prize Attacked: A Question of Sexism?

Posted on March 26, 2008 in Uncategorized

Tim Lott, author of Fearless and The Scent of Dried Roses, has labelled the Orange Prize ‘sexist and discriminatory’ and ‘special treatment for a dominant group’.
Conceived in 1992 and first announced and awarded (to Helen Dunmore for A Spell of Winter) in May 1996, the prize was intended to counter the perception that ‘the considerable achievements of women novelists were often passed over by the major literary prizes.’ Perhaps the most cited example is the Man Booker Prize – only four of the last fifteen winners have been women, and the female winners of the past two years, Anne Enright and Kiran Desai, broke a five-year run of male victors.
Lott’s comments also raise the wider issue of women in publishing – a subject that those starting out in a career in publishing will quickly become aware of. Writing in the Telegraph, he stated ‘Women are predominant, in terms of numbers and power, in most of the major publishing houses and agencies. They sell most of the books, into a market that largely comprises women readers. They are favoured by what is overwhelmingly the most important publishing prize (the Richard and Judy list), and comprise most of the reading group that drive sales.’
Obviously conscious of the criticism frequently levelled at the award, the Orange Prize organisers defend themselves in sections on its website that address FAQs such as ‘Why are the prizes only open to/judged by wo men?’ and ‘why aren’t there similar prizes for men?’, and are quick to point out that the prize was set up by ‘a group of men and women involved in publishing – journalists, reviewers, agents, publishers, librarians [and] booksellers’.
Novelist A.S. Byatt fuelled the debate, telling the Times that she refuses to allow her publishers to submit her novels for the ‘sexist’ prize.
Lott’s comments have been described by some as bitter, but as anyone who works in publishing sees on a daily basis, there is a strikingly high percentage of women working in many areas of publishing, compared to other industries. The ongoing debate about publishing salaries throws interesting light on this issue, with one senior figure famously claiming that publishing is populated by ‘privately-educated Emmas’. Many have expressed concern that low pay, coupled with the ‘London-centricness’ of publishing, is preventing diversity, leaving the job accessible mainly to middle-class, young, white females, whose parents continue supporting them through the first few years of their careers. Others have argued that women are more willing, or ‘better conditioned’ to put up with low pay in return for work they enjoy and are passionate about, and that editing in particular offers a level of flexibility (including the opportunity to freelance) that is appealing to those who plan to have children.
Another oft-reported statistic is the discrepancy in literacy rates between girls and boys. Surely the fact that many girls seem to take to reading more readily and find it a more socially acceptable pastime at an early age fuels a passion for books and the written word that is likely to be nurtured over time into the requisite desire to pursue a career in publishing? And given the predominance of women consumers, especially in trade publishing, it is hardly surprising that women, who, it can be perhaps unfairly presumed, have a more instinctual feeling for the market, are desirable employees.
Women are increasingly taking on high-profile roles within the publishing industry – famous names include Gail Rebuck, Chair and Chief Executive of the Random House Group, and Ursula Mackenzie, Chief Executive and Publisher of Little, Brown Book Group. However, the fact remains that the proportion of male to females in more junior roles is more heavily biased than in managerial and financial positions.
Back in the world of awards, less controversial than the Orange Prize is the lower-profile Kim Scott Walwyn prize, which is administered by Booktrust and awarded to women who demonstrate ‘intellectual rigour, excellence in any area of book publishing and the ability to form and lead creative and innovative publishing teams’. It was set-up to commemorate the life and work of Kim Scott Walwyn, who was a publishing director at Oxford University Press.
It seems ironic that it is acceptable to acknowledge women’s achievements within the publishing industry, but not their contributions to the product of that industry. Surely one standard should be applied to all such awards, whatever that standard may be.

Returning to the constantly controversial issue of the Orange Prize, in answer to the question of ‘Why isn’t there a similar prize for men?’, the organisers baldly state ‘because no-one has, as yet, put in the time, creativity, effort and enthusiasm necessary to start one up and keep it going.’

Lucy Mitchell