Maybe it's time to let men judge Orange Prize, chair of jury says

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The Independent Culture

The chair of the jury of Britain's leading women's literary prize has called for a debate on whether men should be included on the judging panel to ensure a broader mix of tastes.

The Orange Prize, founded in 1996 to redress the gender imbalance in publishing, has enjoyed a long list of judges ranging from writers and literary critics to a model and singers. But while France's main prize for women's fiction, the Prix Femina, allows men as judges, Orange Prize judges are solely women.

Kirsty Lang, the chair of this year's jury, who will announce the winner on Wednesday, said that now, 12 years after the prize was set up, it might be time to discuss letting men in.

"I'm open-minded about it. It would be an interesting debate for organisers to have. Seventy per cent of fiction is bought by women, so having a panel of women judges means they know what women like," she said.

"But I think it could be quite interesting to have a man on the panel.

"The one disadvantage to an all-female jury is that there are certain books that women like ... the judging could be tilted a bit against science fiction."

The writer Kate Mosse, who co-founded the £30,000 prize, said the judging process was subject to ongoing review but that there were no immediate plans to introduce male judges. In 2001, the prize installed a shadow jury comprised of men, who judged the shortlisted books alongside the female jury but they had no bearing on the competition.

"The prize was set up to celebrate international fiction written by women and to get fabulous books by women to male and female readers and it continues to be really successful in doing that. We do look at everything about the prize on a regular basis and the composition of the judging panel is one of these," Mosse said.

Both Lang and Mosse defended the inclusion of Lily Allen on the jury. The singer, who had asked to be a judge, later bowed out after a series of personal problems.

Mosse said she had plans to enlist similar jurors to Allen, who would appeal to younger readers.

"The issue of illiteracy is getting worse rather than better and we must try and work out how not to lose readers in their teens.

"It seems a good idea to have younger, high-profile people talking about being passionate about reading. I was speaking to the CEO of one of the biggest book chains and he said there is a black hole in book buying among 16 to 30-year-olds."

Meanwhile, Andrea Levy, who won the "Best of the best Orange Prize" for her novel, Small Island, has confessed the award left her uneasy and said such "best of the best" prizes may be, "one competition too far".

Speaking about winning the award in 2005, which marked the Orange Prize's 10th anniversary, she said she feared it might have left previous prize winners feeling like losers.

"I felt a little concerned that it might have felt like the prize was almost taken away from the other winners, or that the winning had been graded. But that's what it does to the writers, not readers," she said.

She questioned the idea of the "Best of Booker" prize – a one-off award this year which recognises one writer from a list of 41-strong list of previous winners.

Salman Rushdie won the "Booker of Bookers" in 1993 for Midnight's Children, which is once again, a contender for the current "Best of Booker".

Lang agreed with Levy, calling such awards a "silly exercise" and suggested it was "an obsession with lists" that led to their creation. "Are we saying that Salman Rushdie is better than all the others? I don't think even Rushdie would say that," she said.

But Mosse defended the "best of" prizes as vital in reintroducing classic reads to a new set of readers.

"I entirely understand her (Levy's) reservations but I really think it's about introducing a new generation of readers to great books. There was an uplift of sales of Small Island When Andrea Levy won the second time, because new people were reading it," she countered.