Battle of the sexes

When the organizers of the women-only Orange Prize brought in a panel of male judges, it raised an age-old question: Do men and women have different taste in books?


Matt Thorne
June 8, 2001 11:00PM (UTC)

Created in 1996, the Orange Prize is open to any woman writing in English. The winner receives 30,000 pounds (about $41,000) and a limited edition bronze figurine known as "Bessie" (both anonymously endowed). This makes it the U.K.'s largest award for a single work of fiction. It has also been one of the most controversial. Since its conception, critics of the prize have questioned whether it needs to exist at all: Auberon Waugh, the late editor of the Literary Review and a famously acerbic wit, nicknamed it "the Lemon Prize," and he was not the only person to wonder whether a literary prize solely for women was a good idea.

Last year's Orange Prize was particularly eventful: Before the ceremony, shortlisted author Zadie Smith gave an interview in the Mail on Sunday in which she appeared to criticize the choice of people on the jury and the prize itself. Then the winner, Linda Grant, was accused of plagiarism. This year, however, the controversy has been deliberately orchestrated. Addressing another source of complaint -- the all-female jury that picks the long list, shortlist and winner -- the Orange Prize committee devised an amusing and instructive plan: two separate jury panels, one made up of men, the other of women, each rendering its own verdict.

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But as Clare Alexander, literary agent and former publisher and a member of the selection committee, was keen to point out, the two juries did not have equal weight. "Since the beginning of the prize," she told me, "we have always had pressure to have males on the jury. And the decision to have a separate male jury answered that criticism while ensuring that it was still a female jury that selected the shortlist."

Indeed, the male jury (novelist Paul Bailey, writer and journalist John Walsh and the managing director of Ottakar's bookshop, Paul Henderson) had no real power at all. The female jury (journalist Kate Adie, musician Suzanne Vega, managing director of Amazon.co.uk Rachel Holmes, novelist Emily Perkins and former newspaper editor Rosie Boycott) decided on the long list, the shortlist and the eventual winner. "They made sure we had no effect on the final choice of winner," Walsh points out. "They told us our deliberations wouldn't count for anything or influence the all-girl jury in any way. And they provided us with a long list already selected by the women jury rather than chosen by the men. It was like sitting down to review a meal where the choice of dishes was made by the restaurant, and you were invited only to say how much you liked things."

Novelist Perkins claims that she had no interest in the men's choices. "It never crossed my mind to be interested in what the men were coming up with. Right from the beginning the female jury was the only thing I thought was important."

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The male jury seems mainly to have been conceived as a springboard for an intellectual discussion on the differences between male and female perceptions of literature. It's succeeded in that perhaps too well for those convinced that men and women have different standards for literary achievement. The winning book, "The Idea of Perfection" by Kate Grenville, was the only one to appear on both juries' shortlists.

The exercise was also useful in generating publicity for the prize and a number of serious articles on whether men and women look for different things from books. In a time when Andrew Marr, writing about being a judge for the Samuel Johnson prize, suggested that many male readers were no longer interested in fiction at all, this kind of debate can only be a good thing.

Holmes was struck by the way the two juries reacted in a perhaps unexpected way: "The male jury was more interested in the sort of themes and subjects that might stereotypically be seen as female interests. The male jury was much more interested in the depiction of marriage and relationships, whereas the female jury was interested in a broader canvas. They were more interested in the question of what constitutes a novel: experimentation with form, political and social realism, the whole question of what the novel should be doing now."

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Apart from "The Idea of Perfection," the men chose Esther Freud's "The Wild," Trezza Azzopardi's "The Hiding Place," Laurie Graham's "Dog Days, Glenn Miller Nights," Amy Tan's "The Bonesetter's Daughter" and Helen DeWitt's "The Last Samurai." The women, on the other hand, went for (besides the Grenville) "The Blind Assassin" by Margaret Atwood, "Fred and Edie" by Jill Dawson, "Homestead" by Rosina Lippi, "Horse Heaven" by Jane Smiley and "Hotel World" by Ali Smith.

Jenny Hartley, from the University of Surrey, has written a report for the official Orange Prize Web site that analyzes some of the differences between the selections made by each jury. One of the crucial differences between the criteria the two juries applied, she found, was that the male jury was unconcerned by a quality that Hartley calls "the pass-on factor" -- whether you'd recommend a book to a friend -- which she indicates is very important to women. She also found that women had less involvement in character than she suspected and that the men preferred books with tighter story lines and tauter plots.

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The male jury was not restrained by decorum in attacking the women's choices. Walsh criticized the books the women chose for their shortlist as "not so much good novels as good something-elses: Jane Smiley's is a two-year soap opera. Margaret Atwood's is an over-researched undigested slab of wartime lore bolted onto a really, really deadly SF alternative-world yarn, Ali Smith's book is a sub-Beckett stream of consciousness with no inner life beyond the association of words, Rosanna Lippi's 'Homestead' is a gorgeous series of movie stills from rural life in western Austria in the early 20th century and Jill Dawson's 'Fred and Edie' is a gorgeous but slightly pointless footnote to the biography of Edith Thompson that came out in 1990. They're all OK books, but our shortlisted choices are the real thing, I think: novels that genuinely make it as novels."

Of course, it would be ridiculous to draw far-reaching conclusions from the discrepancies between the two juries' selections. As Holmes points out, "Men and women are interested in different types of books, but then again, different types of men are interested in different types of books."

Alexander agrees. "There are some genres that are extremely feminine, and some that are extremely masculine. A feminine genre, for example, might be romantic fiction; a masculine one, sci-fi. But even these barriers are coming down, with more men writing romantic fiction and women experimenting with sci-fi." Indeed, one of the shortlisted books, "The Blind Assassin," features a lengthy science fiction section.

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Walsh was struck by the sexual ventriloquism attempted by several books on the long list, and in recent fiction by men and women. "In general, the more intelligent the writing, the less gender-specific it's going to be. There is no such thing as a 'male' or 'female' sentence or paragraph. Pat Barker writes about the First World War from the perspective of a young gay working-class man. Nick Hornby writes 'How to Be Good' with a female doctor narrator. We live in ventriloquial times. Women write about war, men write about morality and family relationships. As long as they're not genre fictions, novels are bisexual or androgynous."

The Orange Prize has always placed special importance on reaching readers. As well as having reading groups, promotions in shops (and not just bookshops, as this year the Orange Prize has targeted the coffee shop Caffe Nero, giving away shortlist synopses there), the official Web site and newspaper features, there are two events prior to the prize-giving ceremony at which audiences get a chance to hear the shortlisted authors reading from their work. For Alexander, this interface with the public is a crucial part of the prize. "There is a significant absence of major literary reviewers in England. In America, if a book gets a good New York Times review, there is a chance that the publisher will have to reprint to meet the demand. There is no paper or reviewer in England with that kind of impact. This means that prizes become all the more important, as they are the major way of breaking new authors to a large audience."

Holmes sees this as one of the most important reasons for the prize to exist. "For me, the prize is validated by bringing Anne Michaels' 'Fugitive Pieces' [the 1997 winner] to a wide audience. That was the kind of book that would never have reached the audience it deserved if it hadn't been brought to readers' attention by the Orange Prize." Walsh agrees. "If the Orange Prize is to be important, the judges are duty-bound to give it to some unknown writer. If they give the prize to Margaret Atwood, who won the Booker, we will all say, 'What's the point in having a prize that gives Ms. Atwood 30,000 pounds more when she's already got the top fiction prize?' Ditto Jane Smiley -- do we need a lucrative prize to bring this fine and famous writer the recognition she's already got? But another Anne Michaels would be perfect."

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After last year's extraordinarily elaborate event at the Victoria & Albert Museum (where guests included Norman Mailer, who seemed to many an odd person to invite to a women's fiction award and who advised Zadie Smith "to read all of the other authors who had achieved their fame at the same age as her"), this year's event at Pimlico Gardens was a slightly smaller affair, although the stilt walkers and circus performers from last year returned. The main area of the party was sealed inside a large plastic bubble, with climbing ropes and a trapeze suspended from the ceiling.

As usual, the invited guests were a selection of predominantly female people, mainly involved in the publishing industry but with a few celebrity guests from British television and the usual array of journalists. The prize ceremony featured a speech by former editor Boycott, the head of the women's jury. Boycott pointed out that maybe too much was made out of the difference between male and female authors, claiming that "if people were given copies of the books on the shortlist with the covers torn off, no one would know if they were written by men or women." All the shortlisted authors except for Smiley were present, and each was given flowers and a bound edition of her novel.

The winning book, "The Idea of Perfection," perfectly fulfilled the desire for a book that readers might not otherwise have discovered. Although Grenville is a popular Australian novelist, she is less famous in England. Grenville herself was surprised to be given the award, saying in her speech that she had been enjoying herself precisely because she didn't think she would win and was able to relax. The book seemed a popular choice, although there was also strong support for "Hotel World" by Smith and "Fred and Edie" by Dawson, two authors whose visibility also would have benefited from the prize.

The award ceremony was followed by a short performance by Suzanne Vega and her band, before a DJ kicked off the rest of the evening with Prince -- an extremely suitable choice after all the debates on gender and androgyny.

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And next year's controversy? Well, rumors were flying round that the Orange Prize committee was already looking for a panel of transsexual novelists.


Matt Thorne

Matt Thorne lives in London and is the author of "Tourist," "Eight Minutes Idle" and "Dreaming of Strangers." He also co-edited "All Hail the New Puritans."

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