Literary Notes: Time to get out of the kitchen

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The Independent Culture
SPRING IS the season of the Orange Prize for women's fiction. It now sprawls like marmalade across nearly three months: from the inaugural Orange Lecture this Monday, through the Orange Breakfast at the end of the month (when the long short-list is announced), on through to the June Declaration of the short short-list and the final prizewinner a week later.

And once again, as every year, it will be open season on the award's feminist agenda as the media get their knickers in a familiar twist about anything smacking of positive discrimination. What may not be realised, however, is that this whole debate is being quietly overtaken by events. Inexorably women are sloughing off decades of under-education and gaining on men in the race for literary distinction.

From birth, women display a greater aptitude for and love of words. Girls speak, read and write earlier than boys and stay ahead in verbal skills all the way through school. As women, they tend to buy more books than men, borrow more from libraries and spend more time reading. In fact, there are now twice as many woman literature graduates than men; twice as many enrolling on creative-writing courses.

Of course, this doesn't mean it's all petals in the rose garden. All the evidence shows a woman author's path is strewn with many more thorns than a man's.

For a start, women simply have less time to devote to their writing. The UK's most recent national survey found women doing twice as much housework and childcare as men. Candia McWilliam spoke for many when she claimed that "one child equals two unwritten books".

It's no coincidence that so many prominent woman authors, today and throughout history, are either childless or lesbian or both. Confidence is another problem. A series of recent surveys and market research carried out found that, despite their passion for writing, women are over 50 per cent less likely than men to submit their work for publication.

In a sense this is not surprising. The world of literature, as reflected in the national press, is still a very masculine domain, with twice as many books by men published and over twice as many reviewed - by reviewers who are three times as likely to be men.

Then there are the literary prizes. Men have outnumbered women by around two to one on all the major short-lists for the last 30 years. In poetry the imbalance is even greater, with men winning over nine out of every 10 prizes.

But those who look carefully enough see that the tide is on the turn. Never before have so many women taken writing quite so seriously. The two last censuses revealed a quite dramatic increase in the numbers of women taking up writing as a career. From being just 34 per cent of people whose main occupation was writing in 1981, the number of women had increased to 43 per cent a decade later. Come 2001, if the trend continues, female writers will outnumber male writers for the first time in history. And that's not including the many thousands writing part-time, in snatched and stolen time, in "that still blue almost eternal hour before the baby's cry".

It's time to stop picking at the scabs of an old debate and look at the bigger picture. Yes, it is more difficult for woman writers to make a mark. But hey: they are good, they are on their way, they are getting there. And they deserve any prize that's going. As the judges digest the submissions for the Orange Prize, it's time for the spoilers to get out of the kitchen. The cooking time is over.

Debbie Taylor edits `Mslexia', the new magazine for woman writers launched this month