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Virginia Woolf argued in her essay A Room of One’s Own, that a woman must possess an ‘incandescent and androgynous’ mind if she is to succeed; that the piece of writing must cast off a gendered perspective if it is to truly qualify as good fiction. To consider this aphorism within the context of a literary establishment that disproportionately represents men, one that has at it’s heart, a gender imbalance, is to consider: is this androgyny really required to create better fiction, or purely to conform to the values within a male-driven literary world?

In 1991, the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize consisted solely of male authors, even with a mixed panel of judges. This inevitably provoked questions regarding the lack of interest in female writers, engrained bias of the judging panel towards male authors and the quality of woman’s fiction in the market. This acted as the catalyst for the creation of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996 – a literary award that accepts submissions only from female authors, writing in English and published in the previous year. They endeavor, in their own words, to ‘celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world’.

The shortlist for 2011 has just been announced, and is comprised of six novels (three of which are debuts), from women writers across the globe. They are competing for the £30,000 prize, along with the bronze figure known as ‘The Bessie’. Most popular perhaps, is Emma O’Donoghue’s Room, a profound and gripping tale of a young boy, Jack, who lives in a small room with his mother and has never been outside. Her exploration of both emotional and literal closeness has also earned her a place on the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize. The other Orange prize hopefuls this year are The Memory of Love (Aminatta Forna), Grace Williams Says It Loud (Emma Henderson), Great House (Nicole Krauss), The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht) and Annabel (Kathleen Winter).

Despite its seemingly noble ambitions, the prize has come up against intense controversy, debate regarding its necessity and accusations of sexism. A.S. Byatt famously argued that it seeks to confirm the fallacy that there is a ‘feminine subject matter’, that it implies women writers cannot compete fairly with their male counterparts, and that ‘such a prize was never needed’. There is no doubt that the existence of an all female prize perpetuates the idea that men and women write differently, but who is to say that this difference is a negative thing? Another argument is that if after an all male shortlist, there develops a perceived need for a prize to recognise women’s writing, then that perceived need must be catered for.  When considering research such as that by Vida, who reported significant under-representation of female writers in all major literary magazines, it is hard to argue for the existence of equality within the British literary establishment. And until the disparity between the success enjoyed by male and female writers is significantly minimized or indeed eliminated, the Orange Prize represents a platform where women’s writing can receive its deserved recognition and celebration.

The awards ceremony takes place on June 8th, with shortlist readings being performed at London’s Southbank Centre just two days before. For more information, competitions and discussions regarding the debate, visit www.orangeprize.co.uk

Molly Taylor

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