Eight years ago, when I was a student on an M.Phil. programme in creative writing, I was given a piece of advice by a visiting literary agent. If us female students on the course wanted to become successful in publishing literary fiction, he said, we should change our names – to male names. Men did not read literary fiction by women, he said. Even women did not read literary fiction by women. It was high time we started thinking up pseudonyms.
I thought of this recently when reading an article in the London Telegraph by the author Tim Lott, who wants to see the Orange Prize shunned, if not abolished. The stg£30,000 prize is open only to women, and was created in 1996 in response to the situation prevailing at the time, whereby female authors were largely ignored by awards like the Booker Prize.
In his article, Lott argues that the Orange is both sexist and unnecessary. He makes several good points in support of his cause: he writes about how women sell more books than men, how women (such as Irish author Anne Enright) have won some major prizes in recent years and how involved women are in the publishing industry. ‘‘It’s rather like having an affirmative action scheme for Oxbridge graduates at the BBC,’’ Lott trumpets indignantly.
Reading the article, I was tempted to agree — and if we were talking about commercial fiction and commercial fiction prizes, I probably would have agreed. But what Lott fails to address are more subtle concerns, pertinent to the prize he so badly wants to change. When we are talking about prizes such as the Orange Prize, it needs to be clearly stated that we are talking about literary fiction.
Do women really outsell men in the literary fiction department? There aren’t statistics to say, but I doubt it. In the literary world, the limelight is still being hogged by men – even when Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie write terrible books for years, we still hear about them endlessly. The names of male literary authors trip off the tongue; it’s hard to think of many female names.
This is partly down to promotional issues. Publishers won’t stump up to send female literary authors on book tours – I’ve been interviewing authors for seven-odd years, and they’re almost always male. Although Enright won the Booker, a pathetic 3:10 ratio of female to male representation in the prize remains.
It’s true that things are changing and improving. But if the truth be told, when we want to impress someone with our literary tastes, the book we put on the shelf is by John Banville, not Ann Patchett. I’m not a fan of the idea of the Orange Prize. But I’m pragmatic enough to see that it does a wonderful job in drawing attention to female literary fiction authors who still don’t get their due — looking at the Orange Prize longlist, which emerged on Tuesday, I realised something depressing: I barely recognised several names on the list. Have you heard of longlisted authors like Anita Nair, Gail Jones, Dalia Sofer or Heather O’Neill?
The Orange Prize exists because an inequality of perception regarding female literary authors exists. This will hopefully change, but until it does, we should admit the reality of a situation whereby some of our most famous female authors have names like JK Rowling and Lionel Shriver. Lionel’s real name, by the way, is Margaret Ann.