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June 9, 2010

On The Orange Prize

So pleased that The Lacuna took The Orange Prize.

I gave up talking about The Orange Prize a few years ago, because the conversation was always annoying (“No one puts Baby in the ghetto”), but this year having read 3.5 of the six books on the shortlist, I felt somewhat invested in the whole thing. I also felt as though the shortlist itself was an excellent example of how the prize is doing exactly what it should be doing: celebrating the very best in women’s fiction.

Because this shortlist is living proof of two things: first, that “women’s literary fiction” is often distinct from literary fiction in general, either because it reads as such (and it can, and it does! and is often wonderful for it), or because it’s come into the world via a woman’s hand and is therefore received differently than literary fiction in general. Sometimes both these things are true, sometimes one is, and sometimes neither, which brings me to my next point:

That women’s literary fiction contains multitudes! Of course, each book on the shortlist actully shows the incredible range of excellent books written by anybody these days, gender notwithstanding, but that these are written by women is just another reason to celebrate them. Oh, and yes please, ho hum, a men’s literary award would indeed be sexist and the Orange Prize isn’t, because a) of the million reasons why being a man and being a woman are not immediately parallel experiences, b) the world is a bit more complicated that these stupid lobs of logic back and forth over the net, c) there already is a men’s literary award and it’s called the canon, thank you very much.

Anyway, this is the boring conversation I vowed that I’d avoid, so I’ll just say that I adored Attica Locke’s novel Black Water Rising, but its inclusion on the shortlist was a bit curious because the novel was so unabashedly commerical fiction. But it was such a good book, so ultimately realized in what it had set out to be, and I think it was included on the shortlist to show that women are writing some of the most unlikely women’s fiction these days. Similar with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which I’m slowly working my way through. I historically hate historical fiction, without shame, which might be more than a bit discriminatory on my part, because though Wolf Hall‘s heft is dragging me down a bit, it’s a pretty fascinating read. It’s all politics and executions, and even the women portrayed within it are as far from women’s fictiony as women can get. And with The Lacuna too– yet another book with a man at its centre. I adored this book, had previously decided not to pick it up because of bad reviews, then it was shortlisted and I decided to give it a try. And it was amazing– I want to shake the people who didn’t like it and tell them they read it wrong, but that wouldn’t be polite. Anyway, The Lacuna only had about three women in it, and it took on most of the twentieth century, and that’s what women’s fiction is doing now, amazing stuff. As is Lorrie Moore’s The Gate at the Stairs, which does tackle more feminine topics, but with dazzling techical mastery of language, because it’s Lorrie Moore, after all. (And oh my, all these four books were so wonderful, I really will have to read the other two.)

The one problem here, however, is that now I’ve caught myself saying, “Look at women’s fiction, everybody! Doesn’t even read like a woman wrote it!” Which is not what I mean exactly, because there are certain books that only a woman could ever hae written, and their womenishness is the best thing about them. I think women write the best books going. BUT the Orange Prize gets knocked around so often for institutionalizing/ghetto-ising women’s fiction as ala grim, drunken-father-beating, rape in a hayloft, botched abortion, killed in a car-crash whilst getting thee to a nunnery THE END that I am pleased to see the shortlist doing anything but.

And I am pleased to see that the best of women’s fiction is amongst the best of ficton period.

2 thoughts on “On The Orange Prize”

  1. “And it was amazing– I want to shake the people who didn’t like it and tell them they read it wrong, but that wouldn’t be polite.”

    ::giggles:: But it’s interesting to consider how often the success/failure of a read lies with the reader, isn’t it.

    I agree that The Lacuna places certain demands on the reader that many readers are not interested in meeting; I wouldn’t say it’s my favourite of her novels, but it’s certainly a fine novel and I think it’s not only worth reading but re-reading.

  2. Kerry says:

    I liked it better than anything of hers I’d ever read. And yes, it is up to the reader, isn’t. A book is a different book to everyone.

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