Thursday, April 27, 2006

The future shouldn't be Orange

Natasha Walter says that we still need the female-only Orange Prize for Fiction because "judges of book awards still tend to see male writers as the safer, more authoritative choice". She laments that
the most prestigious prize-giving culture in Britain still often shows itself weirdly unable to recognise and reward the greatest writing, and for some reason books by women are still often the ones that lose out.
She insists that she not saying that this is because judges "consciously prefer work by men". So is it unconscious then? It's plausible I suppose, though ultimately indefensible. After all, one could say women unconsciously write lesser novels and justify this by pointing to how few women have won big book prizes.

More plausible is Walter's contention that an easy consensus is preferred: "The differing opinions [among the judges] tend to cancel each other out". Yet this is also an ultimately vague reason why certain novels win prizes and others don't. Booker winners Keri Hulme and Penelope Lively fit the bill for each side of the argument. Neither novel has lasted. And the most outstanding miscarriage of literary justice in recent times was Elfriede Jelinek winning the Nobel ahead of fellow Austrian Peter Handke - even the winner said so.

What seems really to trouble Walter is that her favourite novels didn't win:
When Zadie Smith's ferocious and heartfelt novel On Beauty lost out in the Booker race last year to John Banville's desiccated The Sea, it was only what one has come to expect from the Booker prize.
So here it is. Now that we're beyond the generalised complaints, we get literary critical judgement, which is far more interesting. Of course, other critics have said quite the opposite about these two novels. And what about Ali Smith's novel? Shouldn't that have won - if not, is Walter herself unconsciously denegrating a woman writer?

The larger issue here then is nothing to do with gender but authority itself. Prizes have replaced critical judgement. This is what literary journalists should be discussing. Why do we attach such an aura to prizes? Even if we claim, as I do, to take no great interest in the results, the blue spine of Banville's little hardback does glow a little bit bluer. I feel obliged to read it (and not chuck it aside as I did before it won). Yet the same could be said for all novels around which a fuss is made, such as On Beauty. If the reasons why a novel deserves a prize could be identified and examined then maybe each of us we'll find our own way to choose and judge novels. We could then persuade others to read them rather than rely on vague appendages such as "prize-winning".

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