By Tim Lott writing in The Daily Telegraph yesterday
Here is a selection of groups that have been consistently under-represented among the winners of the UK's two major book prizes, the Booker and the Costa/Whitbread: the white working class (0); West Indians (1); black Africans (0); disabled writers (0).
Women are predominant, in terms of numbers and power, in most of the major publishing houses and agencies. They sell most of the books, into a market that largely comprises women readers. They are favoured by what is overwhelmingly the most important publishing prize (the Richard and Judy list), and comprise most of the reading groups that drive sales. Girls in schools are more literate than boys, and pupils are taught reading mainly by female teachers promoting mainly female writers.
Orange spokespeople wriggle around this issue - of special treatment for a dominant group - saying that the prize isn't really "about" women, but about being international and about its roll-out programmes for literacy and education. Ignoring the fatuousness of the idea that a women-only prize makes no statement about gender, let's assume that the case for the continuing unfair critical exclusion of women can be made. Would a woman-only prize then be justified?
Well, could the establishment of a men-only prize be justified, with men-only judges (as with the Orange single-sex panels), given their level of relative exclusion in schools and the marketplace? Can you imagine the derision with which it would rightly be met?
All the same, why is the existence of the Orange any skin off my nose? For the same reason it was skin off female noses to be short-changed on the Booker. It's simply unfair. You might argue that a "whites only" prize wouldn't do any harm - but such a prize would also be unjust and offensive. You would again be advantaging the dominant group. It's rather like having an affirmative action scheme for Oxbridge graduates at the BBC.
The final defence for the prize, which is actually an offence, is that anyone who expresses such sentiments is a Bitter Unhappy Misogynist (BUM). That's doesn't wash in my case. I have no cause for or feeling of bitterness, since I am among the tiny minority of novelists who make a good living out of fiction, and have won several important prizes, along with being shortlisted for very many others. I was first signed by a woman, my editor for most of my career was a woman, and my agent is a woman. My four daughters are female and so is my wife, not to mention exactly half my friends (I enforce a quota system, naturally). I don't dislike women. I just dislike the Orange.
The most honest defence of the Orange could be best summed up by a "conversation" I had with a female novelist. She simply hit me on the head every time I mentioned the subject. The tactic achieved its ends - I shut up.
A similar thing happened the day I filed this piece, chatting to a woman whom I vaguely knew and had always seemed nice. I mentioned the article. She announced with great vigour that it was completely fair that there should be a women-only prize and not a men-only prize.
This was because of the rough deal women got in wider society. I suggested that whatever their status in society, they did pretty well in the book world. She responded, blithely, that I was just a BUM. I felt subdued - being hit on the head and abused verbally is not really what I think of as mature debate.
Such arguments do not make the best case for the fairness of a prize that looks at best like an anachronism, and which at worst rigs the market. If you take off the distorted spectacles of contemporary social conditioning, the Orange Prize is sexist and discriminatory, and it should be shunned - or, at the very least, mocked mercilessly.
Then maybe its pretensions of acting towards the common good of literature will be exposed as the self-interested actions of the powerful dressed up as public virtue - a trick that men played on women for thousands of years, until their bluff was finally and rightly called.