Do women need a book prize?
Every year there’s the same debate around the Orange Prize for women writers, which is due to be given out next week. At a hefty £30,000, the award, founded to redress the balance between women, who both read and write most novels, and men, who win most book prizes, is enough to arouse the bitterest feelings among those excluded from consideration. Enough, certainly, for writers and commentators, perhaps unsurprisingly usually male, to get quite red in the face as they grate out the tired old questions, “do we need a prize for women?” and “should we be setting women’s writing against men’s?”
“The Orange Prize is a blot on Britain’s literary landscape,” The Times’ former editor, Simon Jenkins, has fumed in the pages of this paper. His stated belief, shared with a few women writers including Anita Brookner, winner of the 1984 Man Booker Prize, is that giving women a separate prize is positive discrimination gone terribly wrong – that it scores the own goal of actually entrenching prejudice. As Jenkins puts it, “It stamps women novelists as also-rans, as literary second-division writers who cannot stand competing with men.”
Yet supporters of the prize see this apparently high-minded argument as only a thinnish disguise for a curmudgeonly reluctance to recognise female achievement. The female novelists, publishers and literary agents behind the prize’s creation have always said they had no idea, when the prize was first given out in 1996, that it would spark the gender war that has followed.
Novelist Kate Mosse, long the driving force behind the Orange, said she originally thought it would be welcomed by both male and female readers. “I was naïve,” she said. “I thought everyone concerned about reading books would be happy there was a new prize. But the first question anyone asked was, ‘Are you a lesbian?’”
The Orange’s positive effect on sales is undisputed. And, as journalist Geraldine Bedell has commented, “In the week of the Orange launch, one broadsheet carried 20 reviews, 19 of books by men. Women publish 70 per cent of novels in Britain. Were they that bad?”
Valerie Martin, the American writer whose historical novel “Property,” about a slave-owning sugar-plantation family near New Orleans, won in 2003, admitted at the award ceremony that she felt the prize “was founded in a fit of pique,” but added, cheerfully, that this “seems like a very good reason to start something.”
One woman who certainly understood the value of a fit of pique was Christine de Pizan, the world’s first female professional writer. I’ve come to know her work since giving her a starring role in the novel I’ve been writing for the last year, Blood Royal, set in 15th-century France. It was pique that started her writing, too.
For those who don’t know de Pizan, this redoubtable woman, whose father had been the French king’s astrologer, managed, against all the odds, to become the most learned female of her age as a result of her personal troubles. Unexpectedly widowed in her mid-twenties, in grief for the husband she’d loved, and struggling to wind up his debt-ridden estate, she found herself hounded through the law courts by swindlers, with bailiffs banging at the door to take her belongings, and all her aristocratic friends fading hastily away. Instead of giving up, she took the chance to get the education she’d always wanted but been denied because she was a girl. She hurriedly read the classics and, armed with her new learning, turned her hand to writing everything from love poems to laments for her dead love to military manuals and biographies – for money. She managed to earn enough support herself and her teenage children, becoming famous all over Christendom in the process. The King of England tried (unsuccessfully) to lure her across the Channel to his own court. She was a natural-born networker, using her contacts at court to present books and arguments to the Queen, the King’s brother, and the powerful Duke of Burgundy, all of who patronized her. Her books, turned out in the workshop of female illuminators and book-binders she maintained, were illustrated with pictures of herself in her modest blue dress going about her business.
Her professional master-stroke, which caused a literary sensation in 15th-century France, was a series of writings that took on the wildly misogynistic male academic establishment of the day, and savaged her male colleagues’ long-cherished prejudices against women. Already feeling victimized by men who assumed they could run rings around a defenceless widow, take her money, and damage her reputation into the bargain, what spurred her on was the discovery, during her hasty self-education programme, of the great book of the age, the Romance of the Rose. When she realized it was a searing indictment of women’s frivolity, lust, ignorance and dishonesty – a picture startlingly at odds with her own experience of being bullied and traduced by men – she rushed to publish a defence of her much-maligned sex.
“If someone tells me that books are full of the vices of women,
Here is my response to those about whom I complain;
I answer that women did not write the books.”
If women had written books,
I know for certain that things would be otherwise,
Because women know that they are wrongly accused.”
Once famous, de Pizan set to, writing a dozen or so books in the next decade and a half. Her biggest best-seller was called the City of Ladies – not a rant against men, but a beautiful dream sequence, infused with light and hope, in which she imagined a world populated by women getting a chance to show their talents at last. These women were building a city in which the best and brightest of their sex could flourish, unimpeded by male egotism. Women, and men, from all over Christendom rushed to read it.
The City of Ladies is enough of its time that the Queen whom de Pizan imagines reigning over it is the Virgin Mary. But if de Pizan were alive today, the face she’d picture on that heavenly Queen might well be that of broadcaster Fi Glover, chair of the judges of this year’s Orange Prize, who is about to step into the limelight, distributing bounty to deserving women writers and making them suddenly visible in the still male-dominated world of books.
If de Pizan could come back to comment on the annual spot of bother that the Orange Prize still stirs up in the book world today, I think she’d be in favour of a bit more positive discrimination. (ADDED:) Even now that women write so many books, and we have a female Poet Laureate in the shape of Carol Ann Duffy, with a lifetime’s experience of giving the female perspective, there’s still some way to go.
This year’s six shortlisted books – Scottsboro, by Ellen Feldman; The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey; The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt; Molly Fox’s Birthday, by Deirdre Madden; Home, by Marilynne Robinson; and Burnt Shadows, by Kamila Shamsie – are not (so far, at least) up for prizes elsewhere in bookland. If it wasn’t for this award, and the chance of being touched by Fi Glover’s fairy dust, would they perhaps still have been languishing in the outer darkness of Amazon, hoping disconsolately for buyers and reviews?
Christine, who made so much of her talents, with so little encouragement, would almost certainly have demolished any man who told her women didn’t need their own book prize any more – just as she demolished the male critics who told her, six centuries ago, “that it was inappropriate for a woman to be learned, as it was so rare.” It was “even less fitting for a man to be ignorant,” she riposted, “as it was so common.”
Vanora Bennett’s latest novel, Blood Royal, is published this month by HarperCollins.