And the winner is... just about everyone actually

Awards such as the Orange Prize for women's fiction create a ghetto mentality, its critics carp. Boyd Tonkin disagrees

IT'S a glittery night at the Dorchester, and Lord Archer of Weston- super-Mare is working the dinner- jacketed, frilly-frocked crowd. The elastic self-publicist schmoozes through the dressy throng, pressing flesh and slapping backs with fashion moguls, TV presenters and pop divas. So what's new? Not much, except that these are the first ever Ethnic Minority Media Awards. Mr Would-be Mayor is chasing the non-white vote with all the frantic charm of a contender who knows very well that it accounts for a fifth of the London electorate.

With NatWest as the chief sponsor, Jeffrey Archer as a patron, and earnest goodwill messages from Blair and Hague, last Thursday's debut EMMAs sometimes felt more like an insiders' job than a platform for embattled wannabes. That was deliberate, but also deceptive. The new awards for writers, broadcasters, advertisers and campaigners have to wrestle with the same paradox as the pounds 30,000 Orange Prize for women's fiction, whose third winner will be announced tomorrow.

Make a splash, stuff the shortlists with established stars (at the EMMAs, that meant the likes of Ozwald Boateng, Martin Bashir, Meera Syal, old Uncle Trevor McDonald et al), and people will wonder why you need separatist gongs at all. If the much-lauded and bestselling Carol Shields picks up the Orange for Larry's Party, the same doubts will arise. But shun the glitz, focus on the promising unknowns who could do with an extra boost - and you languish on the margins as another dull Worthy Cause.

At the Dorchester, even the EMMA victors disagreed about the value of the occasion.

Shami Ahmed, the fashion entrepreneur who created the Joe Bloggs label, responded to his award by asking whether the evening served the cause of segregation rather than integration. Yet Martin Bashir - the BBC journalist to whom Diana, Princess of Wales, unloaded her secrets, and nobody's idea of a suitable case for special treatment - stressed how valuable it was "for someone from my background" to gain such recognition. For Maya Jaggi, an Independent reviewer and Guardian writer who won the feature-writing EMMA, the event had as much to do with consumers as producers: "Black newspaper readers often have a lot of complaints about what they read on issues close to them. So to be rewarded by a panel of black judges is important."

As for the Orange, its short history has shown that grumbles about separatism will fade if first-class victors emerge and the contest takes the trouble to build a following. At the outset, Mitsubishi of Tokyo dropped their sponsorship after Simon Jenkins had thundered in the Times against the prize. Then the expanding mobile-phone group stepped in, with additional cash from an anonymous American donor. Helen Dunmore and Anne Michaels won in 1996 and 1997, with novels that would rank highly in any company. Crucially, the Orange also broadened its base. It set up reading-groups, education programmes and a successful website - all part of a heart-and- minds campaign that can now protect it against the condescension of the columnists.

The standard objection to restricted-access prizes runs that they risk creating a ghetto mentality - a glass ceiling built by the victims themselves. In Britain (at least) there's precious little evidence that this sort of voluntary apartheid has ever taken root. Orange contenders will not expect to suffer any discrimination in the Booker. (The other fancied runner for tomorrow's Orange, Pauline Melville's The Ventriloquist's Tale, has already proved its form in a gender-blind contest by winning this year's Whitbread prize for a first novel). As for the idea that an EMMA laureate would pass up on the chance to compete for (say) the British Press Awards - well, ambitious hacks don't act like that. Remember, too, that reserved honours often apply to age as well as sex or ethnic origin. Novelists can win the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize while under 35; at 60, though, they become eligible for the Sagittarius Award. Somehow the scourges of PC have missed that one.

Not all restricted awards work. They must have logic and transparency on their side. If not, their limits look like injustice or perversity. Take the Saga Prize, founded by the actress-turned-writer Marsha Hunt, to encourage black authors in Britain. This venture has been hamstrung by its stipulation that every entrant has to possess an "African ancestor".

All sorts of unlikely names would qualify on that score - from Aesop and St Augustine to the slave-descended Pushkin and the Creole Alexandre Dumas. But, as some wits spotted, this seemingly exclusive rule in fact flings the door wide open. Read any modern evolutionary science, and you will soon grasp that we all have African ancestors. So even Jeffrey Archer could take part.

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