Thursday 19 April 2007

The Orange Prize: Friend or Phony

What’s the point of a women-only fiction prize if the utopian ideal the organisers and participants are all secretly aiming for is a world of gender-transcending publishing equality? Doesn’t a prize that singles out women as a distinct group undermine the very autonomy desired and deserved by contemporary women writers?

In 2001 Anita Brookner made a similar point regarding the Orange: she remarked that if fiction is good it will get published, regardless (I infer) of whether it is written by woman, king or computer programme. If she wants equality, said Brookner, a woman shouldn’t seek separate treatment. This view shows an alarming yet heartening faith in the way publishing works. I imagine invisible do-gooder publishing elves nosing out the good stories locked away in bottom drawers and magically setting them atop bookshop shelves. But in reply, it’s fair to say that the way to achieve equality isn’t always to treat things equally. And besides, not all good stories do get published and quite a few decent tomes have been rejected during the author’s lifetime only to be published posthumously. And even when a book is awarded its very own ISBN, it doesn’t necessarily get read (think Modernism) and certainly doesn’t necessarily get bought and generate any acknowledgement or revenue for the writer. So it certainly ain’t the case that all good fiction by women or men gets published, hence the need to do something about it, hence the Orange.

First off, I reckon most of these books are pretty respectable fiction. True, entrants must already be on the shelves (by their own merits) before they can be entered: what the Orange does is something above and beyond getting the books into bound and saleable copy. What the Orange does is help to construct a healthy and competitive fiction market, as well as providing a list of twenty of the best novels written by women today, critically stamped and sealed for the Concerned Reader.

At the launch of this year’s longlist, the prize’s co-founder and honorary director Kate Mosse made the oft propagated but rarely dissected point that great literature, like all great art, transcends temporary restrictions of culture, society and gender and has a necessary universal application and appeal. This view necessarily admits of an objective set of criteria for judging artworks that point beyond the immediate experiences and justifications of the narrow everyday. But the current publishing set-up, the fact that we are all now ‘consumers’ of fiction and that manuscripts are heavily spun, edited and marketed, doesn’t allow too much room for manoeuvre on this count. Today’s climate is more about the fast-paced niche market, about tailoring for certain absurdly-labelled demographic groups, than about connecting with society or god-damn-it humanity en masse. Advertising campaigns normally have a specific target in mind and are rarely concerned with appealing to everybody equally. They suggest that fiction can only be judged ‘right now’ and only then by discrete groups of people, rather than pushing the somewhat braver notion that all fiction can be judged on equal terms by any person willing to learn how. There is an asymmetry between the ideal and the current situation.

This is most obvious when considering the horror expressed by the media, publishers and critics alike that two books on the Orange Longlist had already been nominated for other highflying prizes. Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss won the £50,000 Man Booker in 2006, and The Tenderness of Wolves by famous agoraphobe Stef Penney scooped the £25,000 Costa Book of the Year this February. I suppose the argument goes that prize money should be distributed fairly (read: relatively proportionately) between writers, because storytelling is an under-a-bushel, hand-to-mouth sort of activity, with one media burst and one windfall being sufficient to sustain even the most extrovert and extravagant of artists. If money is to be available it should be allocated according to a strict one-in-one-out policy. But the point about fiction prizes is that they’re about the fiction and are awarded on the merit of the writing, not according to an equal opportunities monitoring form that cares about your bank balance. Arts prizes raise the standards of the arts, in many ways they provide those standards, and the standards are and should be high: they generate healthy competition that rewards genuine ability. And anyway, the fact that there are different prizes for different things already ensures that no one person is scooping all the cash. If somebody is good enough to be nominated for two awards, well good for them, good for literature, and good that we have a good idea of what good literature is.

Kate Mosse’s vision is therefore one born of practicality: she says we need a proliferation of fiction prizes to cover the entire sector, rewarding talent both financially and in terms of readership, in order to generate healthy and diverse competition both within and between types of fiction. And as anybody who has ever scratched their head over an Excel spreadsheet will know, there are many ways of typifying data, and which categories we choose to use are often a reflection of current thinking. And current thinking cares about whether you’re a woman or not and it cares about what you write about when you’re a woman. Depressing example: one lady at the launch told how she was offered an extraordinary rise in advance for her book if she changed the main character from a man to a woman. Needless to say, she resisted and most likely earned less than she could have, and was read less than she deserved. Women’s writing is a distinct category because people – readers, publishers and advertisers alike – think about women as being fundamentally different (presumably from men) in a way that should define, and therefore confine, what they write about and how they write it. In a nutshell, we want women writing about women. Hence the market is the way it is and hence the need for a women’s prize. The whole racket about the Orange simply reflects our gender obsession.

Nobody accuses new writing prizes of being ‘newist’, probably because they can see the need for both moral and financial encouragement for new writers. Nobody gets all hot under the collar about genre-based prizes, even if they think science fiction is the biggest rouse in history. There’s even a fair amount of (begrudging) acceptance of prizes that have wheel-in celebrity judges with no more understanding of what makes a good novel than they do dress sense, of prizes that champion ‘low-brow crowd pleasers’ (Richard and Judy) or are the callous intellectual equivalent of piranha fish on a purging mission (the Man Booker). So, why the big debacle about a prize that restricts entrants by sex – is this really the great unchallenged human rights abuse of recent times?

I’m tempted at this point to throw up my hands and say, ‘so what?’ I’m tempted to say that part of the problem, you know, with art nowadays is this obsession with discussing its function, with it even needing a function flush with political issues, with making sure it doesn’t accidentally offend anybody by demanding it be proportionally representative of a constantly changing populace. I’m tempted to say that there are more important problems in the arts, and in fiction, than those about the gender of its creators, and that feminist fandango should hold no truck here. I’m tempted to say in response to Muriel Gray’s clarion call to women to start making more stuff up, that nobody, just nobody, should be telling writers what they should and shouldn’t be writing about. Isn’t moralising about what women write just about the worst thing you can be doing to a artform already burdened with unreasonable expectations?

But I would have to rehash that to say dictatorially that art is for art’s sake and nothing else’s, that it shouldn’t be used instrumentally to achieve the aims of certain groups, however just their causes, and certainly shouldn’t be exploited for political or politicised (gender equality) ends. But I would be being somewhat naïve to think that this had never happened and never does, and that some good couldn’t come of it. I would be flat-out wrong to argue that art can’t be the vessel for dissenting views and a huge source of social change. But on the other hand, I do hate all that ‘integrity of the artist’ whinging. Despite having a secret belief that artistic integrity properly understood can probably save the world, I think what people often mean by ‘artistic integrity’ is something else entirely, and often something cowardly. They often presume (wrongly) that writers or what not are secreted safely away from the world, narcissistically obsessing about their small differences, narcotically cleansing the windows of their perception and neurotically developing what Tessa Jowell calls the artistic ‘sixth sense’ (I don’t know what it is either). All ‘artistic integrity’ means in this sense is being too sensitive to deal with the broader implications of your art and the cultural and political framework in which it is received.

And despite keying into the beautifully pungent stereotype of artist-as-aesthete, this way of looking at things misses the fact that art exists in the world and that artists are human beings like everybody else. Artworks are in many cases produced in response to stuff that’s going on, culturally, socially and politically. This is seen especially with the new school of ‘oh, look: here’s a human rights abuse’ art (see the soggy ‘protest’ in the Tate Britain), there because we’re oh so boverred all of a sudden. Artists, writers, may be many things, but the good ones are rarely stupid. Shakespeare was a great publicist. And fiction, written to be read, is habitually shaped by its intended readership, it oscillates with the concerns of the times.

The problem is not as simple, then, as dividing the evil advertisers or prize organisers from the poor artistes attempting only to express themselves. It’s not always easy to tease apart the ‘integrity’ or ‘self-expression’ of a book from the circumstances in which it was written, and who it is written for. And it may not be so easy to have a twin justification of the Orange, to say that on the one hand the ideal is a market with the content of books judged equally whereas on the other admitting that the market doesn’t work like this.

So what’s going on? – when Muriel Gray diagnoses a certain self-censorship in women who concentrate on domestic themes, is she committing the secular sin of playing the censor herself, cunningly disguising this as an injunction to women to desist self-censorship? – that would be cool. But no, I think like anybody who has taken a step back from the whole process of publishing and prizes, she has became quite worried about its direction. The problem with her kind of view, I think, is that whilst its motivations are noble (stop whoring yourself around and do something worthwhile) and its sentiment pure (women are still being kicked-down and around and what’s worse, they don’t even notice), it seems premised on the most worrying idea of all, that the arts are there to be legislated about, that they have a moral imperative to deal with the injustices of our times. And whilst some art does do this and sometimes just can’t help itself, politics certainly isn’t all that art is, or should be, about.

The right thing to say is that great art is great because it’s great art. And like most tautologies, this does point to something bigger and better than itself. It means that really good stuff is good on its own terms, is fulfilling and satisfying in and of itself. It might make ‘a point’ but this isn’t all that it does or what justifies its existence, and is definitely not what makes us feel so utterly moved. It isn’t what makes our bellies prickle. To treat art as anything less is to open up a whole monster of a debate that, while admittedly interesting, it seems to me will never end. It is to assume that, like everything else, books should be conforming to certain ideals and honouring certain definitions that in fact mean they can never properly cut through all the crap in the very way that only great literature can. And I suspect this is what Gray was getting at when she said women should be making more stuff up.


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