Do we still need the Orange Prize?

In harsh times, more than ever, argues Michèle Roberts, a judge this year. She reports on the judging process and defends a separate space for women writers

This year's Orange Prize for fiction has been won by Barbara Kingsolver for Lacuna, and I am delighted. Prizes are good for writers who, in the main, earn very little. Deciding to write means volunteering for poverty: 20 years ago, publishers might offer certain well-known writers six-figure advances on sales and could afford to be reasonably generous to some of the less well known. Those times are over.

Nowadays, many authors augment their meagre incomes from writing by taking on whatever freelance work they can get, or by teaching. A joyful acknowledgment that you write from a sense of vocation, driven by single-minded devotion to language, image-making, storytelling, co-exists with a sense of belt-tightening, an increase in the sheer bloody-mindedness necessary for survival as an artist.

Orange Broadband, which sponsors the Orange Prize, ensures that it is good for writers: it rolls in at £30,000. The winner is also guaranteed a raised profile, a big increase in sales at home and abroad, a great deal of publicity. Writers alongside the winner on the longlist and shortlist similarly benefit, since the Prize organisers, working alongside publicists M&C Saatchi and also helped by the umbrella books organisation BookTrust, do a great deal of highly effective marketing and outreach. The finalists' books are heavily promoted in selected chain shops and independents, in libraries and to book groups.

This year, with the Prize celebrating its 15th year, has seen additional media attention, spread across the trade press and the broadsheets, TV, radio, podcasts, websites and Twitter. On Tuesday evening, a reading at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall by the six shortlisted authors attracted an audience of 1000 people, many of whom bought the books afterwards.

The sponsors' generosity is augmented by the publishers of works making it to the shortlist, who contribute towards publicity costs and cover their authors' expenses. The Orange Prize is good for writers internationally, since it is open to fiction written in English published anywhere in the world. Offering this great feast from writers of very different geographical and cultural backgrounds, united by their chosen language, it stands out from other British prizes.

I should also say: the Orange Prize is good for women writers. While it opens up the riches of work by women globally, it excludes offerings by men. On its launch, the Prize attracted delight in some places and hostility in others. Some women novelists angrily felt that gender should not be the focus in this way; that they would be pushed back into the old camp of "women writers", labelled and patronised as separate, different and therefore second-rate. Some male critics resented even having to think about gender at all, scornfully denying that women writers had ever been discriminated against and certainly shouldn't get special treatment. They fulminated that if women wanted equality, dammit, then they should compete equally with the chaps. Some people, myself among them, liked the idea of the French Prix Femina style of prize: an all-female panel of judges sifting novels by both men and women.

The Orange organisers pointed out how few novels by women got entered for major prizes, let alone won them; they referred to the large amounts of space regularly given to reviewing men's work and the much smaller space allotted to women's, the way that male novelists were fussed over and constantly written about, becoming famous for being famous, while women writers of the same generation were often relegated to the margins. They argued that if the playing field was not level then equal competition could hardly even begin. They conceived of the Orange Prize strategically, as a step towards equality.

This all took place in a broad context of women struggling around issues such as equal pay and access to decent childcare. The fuss eventually died down, and the Orange went on to become a popular annual media event. In that quaint old-fashioned feminist phrase: it raised consciousness. Male critics now occasionally referred to how a male/masculine sensibility had swayed considerations of literary quality. Women writers began to appear more often on the shortlists of other major prizes, and even to win them. The reading public seemed to welcome the chance to focus, temporarily, on work by women.

At the same time, questions do rumble on, thank goodness, about whether the category of women's writing should exist at all. For 1970s feminists, it implied subversion and iconoclasm, harnessing the unruly unconscious, writing what had not been written before, inventing new forms for stories and anti-stories, and new kinds of language in which to do so. Was femininity a constraining corset? An upsurge of quintessential identity? A theatrical display?

The French philosopher Julia Kristeva argued that masculinity and femininity, as attitudes to creativity, could be available to all of us if we only enlarged our imaginations, took risks, wrote experimentally. Jean Genet and James Joyce, she asserted, with their wild grammar and poetic syntax, were producing feminine writing. Nowadays, femininity is once again associated with rose-printed aprons and iced cupcakes - ironically, of course.

With women writers becoming more visible and valued, will gender questions become redundant? Maleness and genius may still, in some intellectual backwaters, be so tightly connected that they exclude women as mere scribblers, but genius itself has become suspect as a category in our brave new world of life as shopping. Other either/or divisions are dissolving. The global market has melted down former distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow forms. For example, lots of literary writers borrow the forms of the thriller and play with them.

At the same time, as readers we may be scared of confronting foreign literature in translation, assuming it will be too difficult - but we'll gobble up foreign thrillers, because they make strangeness exotic via the safety of strong stories. It's often in thrillers that the old feminist issues of sexual violence, rape and incest get addressed and made palatable. For male writers, thrillers offer the chance covertly to explore romance; dysfunctional sex on the mean streets.

People who would run away shrieking rather than read something called a feminist novel will lap up its themes via a thriller. All the Orange judges this year loved Attica Locke's Black Water Rising, which meshed the thriller form with a drama about a male lawyer's involvement with the black civil-rights movement in America.

As a judge for this year's Prize, I cleared my diary of other freelance commitments as much as possible. In early December 2009, large brown cartons filled up the hallway of my flat. Where to stack over 120 books? My shelves were already full. In the end, I built wobbly stalacmites and columns, not least in the bathroom. The long, cold, wet, dark winter passed pleasurably. Wrapped in quilts, I lay in bed all day, reading novels and taking notes.

The rules for the Prize state that each judge be initially allotted around 30 novels to consider. Daisy Goodwin, chairing, would read the entire submission. That way, each novel would be read by two of the five judges (who also included Julia Neuberger, Miranda Sawyer and Alexandra Shulman).

I decided to read the lot, and did so. It felt wrong not to have a complete overview. The really good novels gripped me, made me shiver all over with delight, stay up all night to finish them. Reading, as Kristeva asserted, can be sexy: good novels make you cry out, finally abandon yourself to them.

They offer a complete satisfaction, form and content beautifully integrated; a kind of golden airiness and lightness. The bad ones (and some publishers did submit them) made themselves known immediately.

I constructed my own trash pile, hurling into the corner those works which were grammatically clunky, sentimental, superficial, emotionally dishonest, cliché-ridden and melodramatic.

Novelist Kate Mosse, who helped found the Prize, sat in on our meetings. She told us our judging criteria were to be excellence, originality and accessibility. I still don't know what that last term means. A good novel invites readers to access it, suggests it may be worth taking a little trouble. To use my sexual image again: a seduction may require some time.

At our first meeting, in March this year, tough, speedy and intense, we had just over two hours in which to whittle the whole collection of novels down to a longlist. Not really enough time. But I enjoyed the company of my sister judges, from the media and political worlds: the way we listened carefully to each other, did not put each other down, courteously expressed strong differences of opinion.

The discussion could feel painful. For example, I strongly minded not getting one novel that I much admired onto the longlist: Patricia Duncker's The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge. But I was outnumbered and had to submit.

It is tough for the novelists concerned that now longlists are routinely published. Images of martyrs being thrown to lions cross my mind. In the media circus, the appetite for gossip and speculation obliterates how vulnerable writers may feel. A true artist puts his or her whole soul into writing a novel but then becomes part of a spectacle.

Writers have had to toughen up. Yes, if we step into the ring, we accept laying our heads in that lion's mouth. Just as, if we accept being entered for prizes backed by corporate sponsors, we'll have to find ways of dealing with being turned into commodities. The Orange Prize is certainly good for Orange. May it go on being good for writers.

Michèle Roberts's 'Mud: stories of sex and love' is just published by Virago

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Creep show: Tim Cockerill in ‘Spider House’

TVEnough to make ardent arachnophobes think twice

Arts and Entertainment
Steven, Ella Jade and Sarah in the boardroom
tvThe Apprentice contestants take a battering from the business mogul
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Jewel in the crown: drawings from ‘The Letter for the King’, an adventure about a boy and his mission to save a medieval realm
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

    Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

    "I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
    Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

    11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

    Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
    Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

    Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

    The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
    Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

    The school that means business

    Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
    10 best tablets

    The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

    They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
    Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

    Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

    The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
    Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

    Pete Jenson's a Different League

    Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
    John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

    The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
    The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

    The killer instinct

    Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
    Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

    Clothing the gap

    A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

    The Fall of the Berlin Wall

    Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain