Why It Is Time To Scrap Women-Only Book Prizes


And so farewell, the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction. Formerly known as the Orange Prize for Fiction. And soon, no doubt, to be revived – and known as the Dyson Hand Dryer Prize for Fiction. Or the Electrolux Blender Prize for Fiction. Or some other type of fiction brought to you by a ‘brand’ or business that ought rightly to have nothing to do with judging greatness in literature.

But back to Bailey’s which has – for now – withdrawn its funding of the UK’s all-female book prize, to the sound of great sobbing, which began on Monday lunchtime, with an announcement on BBC Radio 4’s World At One. For it is a very special prize – and needs to be saved for the nation – because men cannot compete in it. Past winners have included Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lionel Shriver and Ali Smith.

You might wonder why – when women represent more than 70% of the book buying public and when every book selling behemoth of recent times from J.K Rowling and E.L James to Hilary Mantel hasn’t a Y chromosome between them – we need a special female only book prize. And you’d be in excellent company. A.S Byatt, who beat Beryl Bainbridge and Penelope Fitzgerald to win the Booker Prize for Possession six years before the Orange Prize came into existence, has called the prize ‘sexist’ and refuses to allow her publisher to submit her novels for consideration.

Feminism used to be about the battle for equality and that is a fight I’m signed up for until the bitter end. But in recent years the term ‘feminist’ has been applied to those who insist women need special treatment (because they are delicate, sensitive and – by imputation – not as capable as men). This is particularly absurd when it comes to books. Jane Austen, all three (female) Brontes, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie… I could go on but I’d be typing all day… have all proven that women not only write great books – they write them better than men.

Germaine Greer wryly observed -when the Orange Prize was founded in 1996- that ‘someone would soon found a prize for writers with red hair.’ However well intended the founders of the prize were (and Kate Mosse, in particular, is impossible to dislike) women just don’t need specialist help and it is patronising, in the extreme, to suggest that we do.

And yet while researching the Bailey’s I have found an even more bizarre, and  terrifying, plan to feminise the already femtastic book trade. Writing in The Bookseller, the author Kamila Shamsie has suggested that 2018 – the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote – should be a year in which the UK only publishes new titles by women.

I hope – very soon – Germaine Greer will eviscerate that idea too because whatever it represents – it isn’t feminism. It is a complete perversion of what the Suffragettes fought and died for. Women should have the same rights as men – not more rights than men. And to discriminate against men – to the extent of banning their books! – is perpetuating injustice from which women have finally – thankfully – been liberated.

The Bailey’s Prize is dead! But I’m sure it’ll get another sponsor… unfortunately, for the proud tradition of women’s lib.


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