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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 June, 2003, 11:31 GMT 12:31 UK
The fiction of women's writing

by Keily Oakes
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt took 10 years to write her second novel
The Orange Prize for Fiction honours only women writers - but in these days of supposed equality, is there still a need for a single sex award?

The Orange Prize was founded when no female writers made the shortlist for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1991.

In its 33-year history the Booker has honoured 12 female authors including Iris Murdoch, Anita Brookner and Arundhati Roy.

And one of the UK's other major literature prizes, the Whitbread, has only given two women the top prize since 1985.

The Nobel Prize for Literature has seen just nine women receive the honour in its 103-year history, the last being Polish author writer Wislawa Szymborska in 1996.

So after much discussion and hand-wringing in the publishing world it was decided that a women-only prize was necessary, to be judged by female peers.

Orange Prize co-founder and honorary director Kate Mosse told BBC News Online that in the year women were omitted from the Booker shortlist there was much consternation from both sexes.

It was felt some outstanding writing had been overlooked.

"We thought that despite the fact women published a great deal of fiction, and the majority of consumers and library lenders are women, the genre was being under-represented," said Ms Mosse.

Copycat books

Kate Mosse
Kate Mosse is a voracious reader of all types of books
"There is no agenda with the prize, it is just about good writing by women no matter what audience it appeals to.

"And because it does not rely on marketing, as much of publishing does these days, books that do not get press attention are still in with a chance."

But although women may not be leading the pack in terms of winning literary prizes and accolades, the thirst for female fiction has not abated.

Out of the top 25 best-sellers for the week ending 24 May, 15 were written by women, ranging from Martina Cole's thriller Maura's Game to Jackie Collins latest "bonkbuster" Deadly Embrace.

And then there is the much-derided term "chick-lit", often referring to lighter tales of friendship, love and dieting.

The book that can take much of the credit for the success of the genre is Bridget Jones's Diary.

Although critically acclaimed, Helen Fielding's novel, and those of Marion Keyes and Freya North, sparked a deluge of copycat books - marketed with pastel-coloured covers.

And it is their vast quantities - reminscent of the prolific Black Lace and Mills and Boon series - that became an issue for critics who felt the genre was damaging the reputation of "serious" female authors.

But Ms Mosse, who is also a BBC presenter, said she did not think the so-called chick-lit books had a detrimental effect on women's literature.

Shared reading

"Some of them are extremely well written and there is a market for them.

"Nobody would think to criticise books aimed primarily at men, such as Andy McNab."

Jackie Collins
Jackie Collins' books are always bestsellers
The BBC's recent Big Read list of the nation's 100 best-loved books contained 33 women authors - covering all genres, from the classic Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte to modern novels such as Donna Tartt's A Secret History.

Orange conducted its own poll, asking readers for their favourite book written by a woman, with many of the favourites from the two surveys corresponding.

Ms Mosse said: "I was pleased that the Big Read list did contain so many women because a previous poll by Waterstones had very few women on it.

"There is clearly a shared reading of books written by women which comes out when people are asked to choose their most-loved books."

This year, the Whitbread prize was won by a woman biographer, Claire Tomalin, who beat her husband novelist Michael Frayn.

Current Orange shortlisted writer Carol Shields was on the Booker shortlist for 2002, with one other woman, Sarah Waters.

But neither won, and there was general surprise that Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man was not on the shortlist.

So there are no plans to give up the Orange Prize just yet.

Do you think women should have a separate literary prize? Why does women's writing feature so little in mixed-sex prizes? Do you think female writers will become equally prominent?

Your reaction

Just another example of sexism, in this case misandry. I say enough is enough and I for one will not buy any book from any AUTHOR found on the Orange list. I will purchase my literature from the Booker shortlist, be it a man or a woman!
Jason, USA - Ex-pat

Time has shown that women can match men when it comes to writing literary classics.
Jack , UK
Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Arundahti Roy, Zadie Smith, George Eliot and from across the Atlantic, Harper Lee, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Mitchell to name but a few. Irregardless of which women do or don't win the Booker Prize, time has shown and will show that women can still match men when it comes to writing literary classics.
Jack, UK

Until women or any other oppressed group are truly equal in society, positive discrimination is vital. This applies to every arena whether entertainment or politics. The best cannot rise to the top if their opportunities to do so are restricted or if they are not encouraged. And if women are so equal why do statistics continually show that we are paid less than men?
Rae, UK

What would be the response if there was a male-only book prize? Or a book prize only open to white Anglo-Saxon males?
Anthony, UK

If anything, this kind of thing makes life harder for women because their achievements will be belittled by the fact that they won because they were 'women'. What is next, an award just for ginger haired people?
Chris, UK

If female writers think they are being under-praised then surely they should do their utmost to expose and change the prejudices in the existing literary world? Creating their own awards is a cop-out and only undermines their achievements.
Tim, UK

With something like writing, there only needs to be a single prize - the Booker. If you're going to have an all-women Orange award, make the Booker all men, it's the only way to be fair to both sexes, other than the obvious choice of having a single award to the best writer - regardless of gender.
Stuart, UK

Martin Amis couldn't have done what they're doing
Rosie, UK
Female writers have a harder time than men. A man can have five children, leave his wife to do most of the childcare, while he concentrates on writing. A woman will probably have to look after the children so will have more distractions. People like JK Rowling and Monica Ali have done really well to combine motherhood with writing. I bet Martin Amis couldn't have done what they're doing.
Rosie, UK

How pointless. Women-only awards, prizes and clubs simply undermine everything we have all worked towards for in terms of equality. Why do women feature so rarely in these shortlists? Perhaps we should be looking at who chooses these shortlists, rather than who are allowed to get onto them.
Sarah, UK

The sad truth is that if the big prizes are primarily focused on male writers and continue to sideline the women writers then an alternative is sought so that they are not forgotten - so that they get the same level of marketing focus and cultural attention. The Tate Britain, before the Modern was opened, was said to have 4/5 male work on the floor while 3/4 of the vaults held the work of female artists. I get excited every year about Orange shortlist and await the Tate's (and other institutions) efforts to right the balance...
Marie-Louise Hogan, UK

Why all the fuss? No one complains about the Oscars making the continuous distinction between Best Actor and Best Actress awards.
Silvia VdB, UK

Silvia VdB: The thing about the Booker Prize and the Orange prize is that women can win both. It's only men that are ineligible for the Orange prize. Any award that can be won by someone because of their sex, age, religion or race rather than by being the best simply underscores the fact that equality doesn't exist - and in this instance it's being reinforced by women themselves.
Paul, UK

The cream will rise to the top
Tom, UK
As everyone is striving to get equality for all, special women only or even men only events, set all that back. It doesn't matter if it concerns writing, golf or even political party selection lists. The cream will rise to the top.
Tom, UK

It struck me that women writers have a higher media profile than males nowadays despite the fact that the bestseller list is almost 50/50. Maybe this is a backlash to the inequality of previous centuries, maybe a sign that readers are generally female.
Jamie Bolt, UK

There should be no special awards based on sex, colour or religion. By doing so you are supporting bigotry.
Arne, Denmark

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