FROM THE PULPIT
submitted. Instead we were each sent twenty-seven novels from which we chose our personal shortlist of three books. We then met over lunch to discuss our longlist of nine. At our meeting we all lamented the poor quality of
WHENTHEORANGEPrize for Fiction was created in 1995, Auberon Waugh, formerly of this parish, rechristened it the Lemon Prize. The first literary prize to exclude men was denounced by Simon Jenkins as ‘sexist’ and A S Byatt said it ‘ghettoised’ women. Nearly thirteen years on and the prize is still with us and looking increasingly redundant. In 2007 female authors cleaned up all the major literary awards – the Booker (Anne Enright), the Costa Book of the Year (A L Kennedy) and the Nobel (Doris Lessing). There may have been an argument for championing women’s fiction back when Martin Amis, Rushdie, Barnes et al exerted such a stranglehold on the market, but those days have long since gone. Women don’t need a leg-up any more. Last year I rather facetiously pointed out in a newspaper column that as the Orange Prize was about to enter its teenage years it would be only fitting for it to start flirting with the opposite sex. Rather than have an all-female judging panel, why not let men have a voice in the judging process? Or at the very least appoint a shadow panel comprised entirely of men to compare results. I volunteered for the task. Of course I expected to hear nothing more. But a few weeks later I was rung up by the formidable Costa awards administrator, Bud McLintock, and asked to be a judge of their First Novel Award. I have always had a sceptical opinion of literary prizes, including the Orange. At best they are a lottery – ‘posh bingo’, as Julian Barnes dubbed the Booker – and at worst they seem a perfidious example of Buggins’s turn. Just this once I agreed to become a judge and swallow my considerable misgivings. After all I had nothing to lose. In fact it turned out I would receive a small honorarium. Much to my surprise and delight, all my worst expectations were confounded. First of all I was fully anticipating to be bribed, or at the very least strong-armed by authors, literary agents and publishers. In the event I heard not a squeak out of any of them. Surely they are not all that unimpeachable? Or were they afraid to try to butter me up because I was a journalist? Judging the books was a fascinating and educational experience. Before our judges’ meeting I had prepared endless devious strategies to get my way and even consulted the Booker Prize administrator, Ion Trewin, to verse me in the dark arts of judging lore. In the end I succeeded without recourse to any of them. (To be fair to Mr Trewin he persuaded me that there are no dark arts. And, as he predicted, a deserved winner did emerge through osmosis.) The process is by no means perfect. Not one of the three judges (myself, actress Helen Lederer, bookseller Nic Bottomley) got to read all the 80 first novels
most of the submissions. I even began to suffer delusions that I could write a novel myself. Surely I could never write one that bad. But given the amount of dross it was much easier for the gems to stand out. Another minor revelation was the number of superior books which featured an acknowledgement to Andrew Motion, the poet laureate and creative writing professor. So that’s what he does with his spare time. The prize restored my faith not only in prizes in general but in Mr Motion in particular. I hadn’t realised there was a whole literary school of mini-Motions out there. Our shortlist of four books comprised A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam; What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn; Gifted by Nikita Lalwani; and Mosquito by Roma Tearne. When the shortlisted titles were announced to much fanfare, it emerged that we had chosen the first all-female shortlist for the first time in the Costa’s (formerly Whitbread’s) 36-year history. This feminist milestone came as news to all of us. We were judging the books on their literary merits irrespective of gender, race and colour. At first glance our shortlist could not have looked more politically correct. Horrors. What would Waugh have made of it, I thought to myself? Of the four women, three were born overseas (India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka). Certainly the backdrop of two of the shortlisted books – civil war in Sri Lanka and civil war in Bangladesh – provided a more alluring and exciting setting than the wetlands of Norfolk. But it wasn’t the exotic locale which won us over. It was the quality of writing, the voice and the characterisation which raised these four books to another level. Perhaps it had more to do with age than gender. At the risk of being ungallant, this female quartet is not young. Two of them are in their thirties; one is in her fifties. They have had ample time to reflect on their experiences, be it the strife of civil war or in the case of the eventual winner O’Flynn (the only home-grown novelist) the strife of rejection. Her book was turned down fifteen times before she found a publisher. What did I learn from the experience? Well, the next time there is a row about political correctness and the preponderance of ethnic minorities or women on a prize shortlist, I will certainly think again before scoffing. It could well be they deserve to be there. And it made me realise that the Orange Prize’s days are well and truly numbered.
LITERARY REVIEW April 2008