The future's bright for Orange

When it was launched a decade ago, the idea of an award honouring female writers was derided. But the nine winners have a different story to tell about this literary accolade. Louise Jury reports
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The Independent Culture

When the Orange Prize for women's fiction was launched with an endowment from an anonymous benefactor, it was attacked as patronising and an egregious example of positive discrimination. Auberon Waugh called it the Lemon Prize, AS Byatt logged her opposition to "anything which ghettoises women" and the journalist Simon Jenkins dismissed it as sexist.

When the Orange Prize for women's fiction was launched with an endowment from an anonymous benefactor, it was attacked as patronising and an egregious example of positive discrimination. Auberon Waugh called it the Lemon Prize, AS Byatt logged her opposition to "anything which ghettoises women" and the journalist Simon Jenkins dismissed it as sexist.

The howls of protest - from men and women alike - were such that the original Japanese sponsors pulled out. Yet today, as the broadcaster Jenni Murray and her team of judges prepare to anoint the 10th recipient of the prize, the furore seems quaint.

Widely acknowledged to have blazed a trail with winners who have been overlooked or entirely ignored by other prizes, the Orange has become as much a part of the publishing landscape as the Whitbread and the Samuel Johnson, if not yet quite a challenger to the Man Booker.

And it has sold millions of books. Novels that may have sold only a handful or few dozen copies before the prize publicity machine worked its magic have seen sales soar on the back of shortlisting alone.

Victors can expect to shift 10,000 paperbacks in the month after picking up the £30,000 cheque. Andrea Levy sold nearly 4,000 copies in hardback in the first few weeks after her success with Small Island last year. Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces went from 1,000 sales and no reviews before her win to 15 million sales worldwide after.

Kate Mosse, the co-founder and honorary director of the prize, said:"I never expected the vehemence of the reaction. However many times I said, 'This is about getting great books read more widely,' the line would still be 'This is a sexist prize'.

"But I felt absolutely sure that once we had a shortlist and people saw the fabulous books on it and that some of those books hadn't even been reviewed or hadn't been listed for the Booker that the principle of the prize would start to speak for itself. So it was just a question of holding one's nerve.

"I knew that who came to the first party would be a pretty good indication as to whether the press was right and it was a terrible idea, or whether a lot of people thought it was rather a good idea. Almost the first to arrive was Iris Murdoch and I thought: 'That's OK.' A little bit later Cherie Blair came and I thought: 'That's interesting.'

"I think the obvious shift was in the third year when it had suddenly become an accepted part of the publishing culture. Carol Shields was just thrilled she had won. She was an iconic writer, brilliantly reviewed, but she said winning the prize made a massive difference to her sales.

"Now I think everybody involved in the prize - and it's a big group effort - is very proud. It's very satisfying. Each year it just gets more embedded in the general consciousness."

All the winners The Independent spoke to last week agree that the prize has had a transformative effect on their work and lives. Kate Grenville, victor in 2001 with The Idea of Perfection, said: "Winning the Orange Prize was a life-changing event for me. The prize money - plus the sales the prize generated - meant that I could become a full-time writer of fiction instead of a part-time writer subsidising her habit with teaching creative writing."

Even better, she added, was the reassurance that she had written a good book. "It had suffered a tepid critical reception here in Australia. Perhaps the fact that it's a comedy made it hard for it to be recognised as a book about ideas as well; we Australians like our ideas to come in solemn packaging, I suspect."

Valerie Martin, the 2003 winner with Property, said the prize was not yet as well known in her native United States as it had become in the UK, but it had made a big difference to her sales in Britain. "It's been miraculous. Mary Reilly was probably the book of mine that had done best in Britain, but a few of my back-list had never even been published there and they were all out of print. Now they're all back in print. It's made a big difference to the availability of my books. And there was an immediate big leap in sales of Property."

The novel has also sold well in France, where it did not have a publisher until she won. And she is now writing a play based on the novel for a Californian theatre producer-director, Peter Schneider, who read it in his book club, which only reads prize-winning books. She is hoping the work might premiere in London.

"It's not easy turning something that is so internal into something where everyone has to say what they think," she said. "But it was a good result of the prize and is directly a result of the Orange Prize."

Martin admits she never understood what the problem with the prize was for its opponents. "I think it's a wonderful thing," she said. "I think prizes are by their nature exclusive. There's a prize in the US, the Janet Heidinger Kafka prize for the best book written by an American woman, but there's never been any fuss about it [but] that prize is not as heavily funded as the Orange. I think it must be about money."

The results for Helen Dunmore, the first winner back in 1996, were, perhaps, less dramatic than for some. It was her third novel and had been brilliantly received. But she said winning was very exciting. "You didn't know what to expect," she said.

"There are so many books out there and if yours has a sticker saying it won something it has an acceleration effect that is very helpful to an author. The battle is to get the book in people's hands. That's a great struggle and it's where winning a prize helps."

She too was baffled at the opposition. "It was explicitly set up to be a prize for women and that was clear from the start. I find I'm interested in what is on the long list and sometimes it's not the book that everyone is raving about and it's not the book that has hundreds of thousands of pounds of promotion behind it. It's about bringing new work to people's attention and opening up the field."

For Dunmore, who was juggling writing with raising a young child at the time she won, it was the boost to confidence that mattered. "It made me feel more confident that I could earn my living as a novelist. That was very important," she said.

Validation mattered also for Linda Grant, the winner in 2000 for When I Lived in Modern Times against Zadie Smith's hotly favoured debut, White Teeth.

"I had worked for a long time as a journalist and people said: 'She's really just a journalist; can you take her seriously as a novelist?' Winning the prize made me feel I could say: 'I am a writer, I am a novelist.'

"I had always thought of myself as somebody who was a writer working in a number of different media, fiction and non-fiction, but there's a tendency to try to categorise people as one or the other."

The financial rewards of the prize were hugely significant too, in the cheque and in increased sales. By the time her agent got to work the next day, his answer machine was overflowing with messages from American publishers wanting to buy the book. And an "extraordinary" number of foreign rights were sold on the back of the win.

Consequently she could quit her contract with The Guardian and concentrate on her own writing. "I was on the board of the management committee of the Society of Authors and you realise what a tiny number of authors there are who earn a living from writing books," she said. "This meant I could focus on writing and when I do write journalism now, I do things I want to write about. People talk about prizes in a very abstract way, but they have very practical and tangible effects. They serve to propel literary fiction to the forefront of people's attentions - that can only be a good thing."

Not that the whole experience was enjoyable for Dunmore. From the isolation of writing at home, she was thrust into the competitive limelight alongside five others. They all wanted to win the prize because they knew what an impact it might have. "None of us really enjoyed it," she said.

And she hates the debate about whether there should be a prize for women. "It's fascinating that the Orange Prize is the only that has these questions asked about it." No one challenged prizes restricted to Commonwealth writers or the slew of prizes administered by the Society of Authors for writers under 35 or over 60.

"The Orange Prize is wholly and entirely a good thing. What they're trying to say is: 'There's a wealth of women's literature out there we're not hearing about, because it's not being reviewed properly and authors are not being interviewed.' You get this little statuette and it sits on my mantelpiece and sometimes when I'm in despair, I look up at it and think: 'I did win the Orange Prize. I can do this.' There's something very nice about that."

This year, as part of the 10th anniversary celebrations, there will be an extra "best of the best" prize announced this autumn, an honour not bestowed by the Booker until its 25th anniversary.

The 10 women who have chaired the juries, including the broadcasters Sandi Toksvig and Sheena Macdonald and the writer Ahdaf Soueif, have agreed to re-read all 10 winners to choose a champion of the decade. All the victors will be profiled on Radio 4's Women's Hour.

Ms Mosse said it was a great chance to celebrate the prize's achievements. "It is very exciting to be able to promote our winners again and bring a new generation of readers to some of the books they may have missed first time round.

"We got a call about nine months ago from Hollywood because Demi Moore is playing a best-selling very important female author in a new film and the way they wanted to show she was a serious creative artist was by her winning the Orange Prize. They asked whether they could use the name and borrow the trophy. I have a resin copy of the Bessie so off it went."

And anyone still sceptical might want to speak to Grenville in Australia. "I'd love the anonymous donor of the Orange Prize to know how much the prize means to me," she told The Independent last week. "She has my eternal gratitude."

The 2005 shortlist

JOOLZ DENBY: Billie Morgan (Serpent's Tail)

Billie is in her forties, running a jewellery shop in Bradford, trying to forget the past. But Billie was a hardcore biker chick, one of the Devil's Own, and involved in murder. Now, years later, she has to face the consequences.

MARINA LEWYCKA: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Viking)

When their widowed father in Peterborough says he's to remarry, two sisters decide to save him from the Ukrainian gold-digger. But he wants to follow his dreams.

JANE GARDAM: Old Filth (Chatto & Windus)

Filth was an international lawyer with a practice in the Far East. Only the oldest QCs can remember that his nickname stood for "Failed In London Try Hong Kong". His story is traced, from his birth in Malaya to old age.

MAILE MELOY: Liars and Saints (John Murray)

Yvette Santerre, whose husband is away at war, meets a man while visiting the beach with her children. The chequered history of the Santerre family, with its ugly secrets, is told in a cross-country car trip.

SHERI HOLMAN: The Mammoth Cheese (Virago)

When Manda Frank gives birth to 11 babies, the world descends on her town. Meanwhile, cheesemaker Margaret Prickett decides to make a point but fails to notice her daughter's plight.

LIONEL SHRIVER: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Serpent's Tail)

Kevin Katchadourian kills seven fellow pupils, a cafeteria worker and a teacher. While visiting him in prison, his mother writes to her estranged husband about his upbringing.

Previous winners

1996 - HELEN DUNMORE: A Spell of Winter

Previously better known as a poet, Helen Dunmore won the first Orange with her tale of the relationship between a brother and sister through the First World War. She spent two years teaching in Finland before her first novel was published. She has now written 13 books and has judged the TS Eliot and Whitbread awards.

1997- ANNE MICHAELS Fugitive Pieces

It took a decade for Anne Michaels, a musician and writer based in Canada, to complete her story of the Holocaust. A year after publication it had shifted just 1,000 copies and garnered no reviews, but the Orange, one of four literary awards the book eventually received, has helped push its sales since past 15 million.

1998 - CAROL SHIELDS Larry's Party

The Chicago-born Carol Shields did not publish her first book until the week of her 40th birthday, insisting that hitherto her aims had been "a baby, a fridge freezer and a car". By the time she won the Orange, all that had changed - she was viewed as a leading literary feminist after complaining "women in fiction were bimbos or bitches".

1999 - SUZANNE BERNE A Crime in the Neighbourhood

As an aspiring author, Suzanne Berne's first job could have been enough to put her off creative writing for life - writing up classified ads. Fortunately she persisted and her first novel was lauded for its portrayal of life in a suburb of Washington DC in 1973 told through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl. She lives in Boston and teaches at Harvard.

2000 - LINDA GRANT When I Lived in Modern Times

The daughter of Russian and Polish immigrants to Liverpool, Linda Grant concentrated on journalism prior to writing fiction. Her prize-winning novel about life in Tel Aviv in the last years of British rule found its way into the headlines, with accusations of using material from an academic text. Her publisher agreed to acknowledge the academic author.

2001 - KATE GRENVILLE The Idea of Perfection

Prior to writing, Kate Grenville's CV had consisted of a list of jobs including film editor, typist and teacher. The author said she had been put off writing because of her degree in English literature. She said: "It was very easy to think: 'My work is not as good as Henry James'." Two of her books have been made into feature films.

2002 - ANN PATCHETT Bel Canto

The daughter of a Los Angeles police officer, Ann Patchett took writing classes at university and her first story was published before she graduated. But her Orange triumph was as an unfancied outsider. Her novel about hostages and hostage-takers during the 1996 occupation of the Japanese embassy in Peru became an international bestseller.

2003 - VALERIE MARTIN Property

The New Orleans-born writer was the second surprise winner in as many years when she leap-frogged the hot favourites Donna Tartt and Zadie Smith with her novel about slavery in 19th-century Louisiana. The book about the spoilt mistress of a slave plantation was based on texts written by former slaves and their owners.

2004 - ANDREA LEVY Small Island

The world might have been deprived of Andrea Levy's literary talents were it not for Julie Andrews. Upon winning last year's prize, Ms Levy credited The Sound of Music with stopping her from becoming a juvenile delinquent. Her book about the Windrush generation of West Indian immigrants to Britain drew on her experiences in London.