For most Americans the word "Bessie" may conjure up a cherished cow, but in Britain it refers to the bronze statuette awarded to the winner of the Orange Prize. Monday the short-list for the 1999 Orange Prize was announced.
The $49,000 award -- the most lucrative literary prize in Britain -- originated from the premise that women tend to be underrepresented among British literary prizes: It goes to the woman who in the opinion of the prize committee has written the best novel in the English language that year. The award is named for the wireless telephone company that underwrites its promotional costs; the prize money itself is anonymously endowed. Though it's a relative newcomer to the British letters scene, the four-year-old Orange has fostered its own cottage industry of oddsmaking and punditry.
But of the three prizes that have been awarded so far, only one has gone to a Brit: Helen Dunmore, who won in 1996 for "Spell of Winter." The other two were taken by Canadians: Anne Michaels in 1997 for "Fugitive Pieces" and Carol Shields last year for "Larry's Party."
This year North America again dominates the short-list. In the U.S., Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison received a nod for "Paradise," Barbara Kingsolver for "The Poisonwood Bible," Jane Hamilton for "The Short History of a Prince" and Suzanne Berne for her debut, for "A Crime in the Neighborhood." Canadian Marilyn Bowering hopes to give her nation a three-year sweep with "Visible Worlds." The lone British nominee is Julia Blackburn for "The Leper's Companion."
The London press took grim note of the upstarts in the colonies. "'Piddling' British Fiction Loses Out to the Americans," a headline in the Guardian lamented. "British women writers are being comprehensively outclassed by their colonial sisters," an editorial in the Daily Telegraph complained. But Diana Reich, the prize's administrator, doesn't think that the five judges should take nationality into consideration. "We want to draw attention to the richness and excellence of international women's fiction," she told Salon Books.
The border of gender, however, persists. Although the judges are chosen from a cross section of literary culture, none of them is male. "I agree that that is something we should keep in mind," Reich conceded politely. For now, however, sisters are doing for themselves.
The winner of the 1999 Orange Prize will be announced on June 8.