Monday marked another landmark day for sexism in literature. The prize formerly known as the Orange Prize for Fiction, which is currently without sponsorship, has picked up a new funding partner. From 2014 - 2016, the £30,000 award will be known as the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.
Great news! I hear the female literati cry. Diageo has come to our rescue! This is a great sign for women novelists across the globe!
Well... yes and no. Specifically: Yes, if you're happy to live with blatant positive discrimination funded by one of the worst culprits of gender-based marketing on the planet. No, if you're a little uneasy about seeing readers and writers divided down the middle in yet another campaign that tells us "WE'RE DIFFERENT!" "WE'RE GIRLS!" "WE LIKE GIRLY THINGS!"
Admittedly, there are female authors who write about shopping, handbags and dates, but that is not what this prize is about. (Nor are such subjects the preserve of women writers.) Hilary Mantel, Kate Atkinson and Maria Semple write inspiring, well-researched, often witty fiction based on subjects ranging from Thomas Cromwell to mid-life crises. They deserve respect for their work. They deserve to be judged alongside their male counterparts - not in isolation.
Fiction is one of the few walks of life where gender doesn't matter. In the real world, we are judged on our looks, our voice, our stance. In board rooms we struggle to make ourselves heard. On construction sites we are ogled. In parliament we are scrutinised for how we dress. But in fiction, where all that matters is the words on the page and the worlds they conjure up, there are no tells. Books are genderless products that can be enjoyed by men and women regardless of what chromosomes the author happens to have.
Critics would tell me that this is precisely why we need a women-only prize: to boost the profile of female authors so that more men and women can enjoy titles written by women. The Orange Prize for Fiction was founded in 1996 as a way of driving book sales for female novelists. (That's all prizes are, by the way: marketing tools for publishers.) Historically, women have won fewer literary prizes than men, despite making up the majority of the writing community. In fact, women are woefully under-represented in many positions of power in the literary community. (Here are some shocking stats on that, if you're interested.)
I am not denying there's a problem with sexism in literature; there is. Women writers do need to win prizes in order to expand their global reach. But they need to win prizes that are open to everyone - not just women.
This is not an impossible feat. It can happen, but it needs the support of publishers, who are all too quick to slap a long pair of legs or a handbag on the front of any book written by a woman and give it a frivolous title that signals "beach read" or "fluff".
Publishers need to work harder to showcase each of their female authors in a way that represents and respects what is inside the book - giving that book a better chance of competing for awards that are open to all.
Kate Mosse, chair of the Women's Prize for Fiction board, said it was felt that Baileys was the "ideal choice" after talks with a range of potential sponsors.
Sadly, I see what she means. From a branding perspective, the match is a good one. Both the prize and the drink stand for similar values. Both tell us that women need special treatment - that we are not worthy of standing alongside our male counterparts in either our writing or our drinking.
What this union achieves is a triumph of sexism, exacerbating the perceived differences between men and women and pushing us further away from the state of equality some of us long to achieve.
Polly Courtney is the author of six novels including Feral Youth, a book for readers of any gender, out 26th June 2013.
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