On Why the Women’s Fiction Prize is a (Good) Thing

Yesterday, awesome sauce contributing editor Cassandra Neace wrote an article questioning the merits, and purpose, of the Women’s Fiction Prize, also known as the Orange Prize. If you missed it, Cassandra has attempted to read all the nominated titles for the prize this year, while I have read exactly none of them, making her better than me already in a multitude of ways. Her analysis of the actual quality of the prize, then, is way better than anything I could conjure up (obviously). I therefore don’t question most of her post, but feel the need to discuss my differing view on the philosophy of the whole thing. Namely, why it exists.

It’s also clear that all of us WANT equality for women in the literary world. And having differing views on how to do that can help further the discussion, hopefully. So in that vein, here’s why I think the Women’s Fiction Prize is in fact extremely important towards that goal, and why I would welcome a similar prize in the US, as well.

As a queer person, I liken anytime someone questions any type of “women’s only” thing, whether it be an award or an event or a conference or whatever, to someone complaining about gay pride parades. There aren’t STRAIGHT pride parades, they cry. There aren’t MEN ONLY literary prizes! Some of my favorite people in the world have espoused these ideas, and I know it’s because the logic seems sound. Except it’s only sound if you ignore all societal and historical factors, because:

Every day is straight pride.

Every day is a men’s only literary prize.

Obviously, the best solution would be to make all literary prizes fair and equal, to ensure there’s an equal number of male and female (or genderqueer) authors considered for each one, that the judges are equally consistent. But it just ain’t that way, and after viewing the VIDA numbers year after year, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to have a miraculous literary gender equality revolution any time soon. I know there are the women who have indeed won  prestigious prizes recently and throughout history, your Jennifer Egans, your Louise Erdrichs, your Toni Morrsons. But even when women do succeed in publishing, they’re more often than not treated, and marketed, differently. There are still female authors today who wish to be known by non-gendered first initials only, and there’s a reason for that. And I don’t think most of this is insidious evildoing, that people are blinded by testosterone and determined to bring the ladies down, or anything. It’s just how the game is already rigged, not just in publishing but in society.

Even beyond awards, consider how many male authors are taught in schools and colleges versus female authors, or how many authors you think of when you bring to mind the “classics.” I’m a victim of this myself. Just recently, at the trivia night I attend each week, there was a question about a 19th-century poet. After hearing the clues, in the pressure of the moment, our table full of feminists rattled off five or six dead white male poets as possibilities. The answer? Emily Dickinson. We all looked at each other and shamefully admitted we had just immediately assumed it was a man, even though we have all obviously read Emily Dickinson. It’s ingrained in us.

Until “prestige” is a term that’s used towards women and men with equal frequency, a Women’s Fiction Prize is still essential. And its purpose is not say, “We’re separate,” or even, “Screw you, bros!,” but to say, “We’re more important than you’re giving us credit for, so we’ll have our own damn prize.” Any award that can give female authors more attention–marketing scheme or not–is a good thing.

The “separate but equal” argument doesn’t hold sway, I believe, because “separate but equal” is a philosophy that only relates to counting people out of things. But women aren’t being cut out of anything. It’s not a pity party; it’s a celebration. It’s creating more venues because more venues are needed.

Even if we did reach a utopian world where society as a whole took female writers just as seriously as male writers, I think I’d still want a Women’s Fiction Prize, to be honest. Just as, if every single state and every single country in the world endorsed gay marriage, I’d still hope there’d be pride parades. Because history isn’t easily forgotten, and the past still holds enormous power. And sometimes laws or awards alone don’t necessarily mean everything is as peachy as we’d like to believe.

Of course, not all women may dig the Women’s Fiction Prize, just as all gays don’t march in pride. And that is totally, totally fine. But man, am I glad they both exist.


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