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Celebrated novelists are writ large in Orange order of merit

Two of the world's most celebrated female novelists are on the shortlist for the pounds 30,000 Orange Prize for fiction, open only to women writers.

The American E. Annie Proulx, winner of the 1993 Pulitzer Prize, and the Canadian Margaret Atwood, three times shortlisted for the Booker Prize, are among the six writers competing for the prize, set up last year to raise the profile of fiction by female writers.

Ms Proulx, who published her first novel in 1991 at the age of 56 and won the Pulitzer Prize for The Shipping News is included for Accordion Crimes, a tale of immigrant life in 20th-century America, constructed around the journey of an accordion and those who own it.

Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace is based on the truestory of one of 19th-century Canada's most enigmatic and notorious characters, murderer Grace Marks. It was favourite for last year's Booker Prize, but lost out to Graham Swift's Last Orders.

The other novels in the running for the prize, which will be awarded in June, are: One by One in the Darkness by Deirdre Madden; I Was Amelia Earhart by Jane Mendelsohn; Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, and Hen's Teeth by Manda Scott. Three of the four are first novels.

In an extension to the usual format of literary awards, the shortlisted authors will read from their books at a public reading, two nights before the prize-giving, and there will be an Orange web site for readers to give their opinions on the books.

A spokeswoman for the prize organisers said last night: "It's true that the prize was set up to raise the profile of women novelists. But it doesn't matter at all if there are high-profile and high-selling authors on the shortlist, as the prize will bring them to the attention of even more readers."

Kate Mosse, administrator of the prize, commented: "Our aim was always to create a prize for readers and bring a breath of fresh air to the established literary landscape. I'm particularly excited at the international flavour of this year's shortlist and I am delighted that we have been able to extend our range of debates and live readings." David Lister