Sexism storm as women-only book prize launches

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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

The founders of Britain's newest and largest book prize denied sexism at the launch of the award for women novelists only yesterday.

The Orange Prize for Fiction offers pounds 30,000 for the best English-language novel of the year written by a woman, pounds 10,000 more than the Booker Prize and pounds 9,000 more than the Whitbread Book of the Year. It is aiming for the same literary high ground as the Booker, intending to "celebrate excellence, originality and accessibility". Women of all nationalities are eligible and the five judges will all be female.

Kate Mosse, the novelist who chairs the judges, said the prize had partly been sparked by the Booker Prize's 1991 shortlist when all six authors - including Martin Amis, Ben Okri and Roddy Doyle - were men.

"It wasn't complaining, stamping our feet and saying 'This isn't fair'. But whether from taste, tradition or expectation most women don't find their way onto shortlists and even fewer actually win," she said.

The Booker, which is open to Commonwealth writers, has shortlisted 153 writers since 1969. Of those, 57 have been women. In the same period it has had 29 winners, of whom 10 were women.

"Just imagine what people would say if Booker released a shortlist with only women. Everyone would see it as an enormous political statement," Ms Mosse said.

She acknowledged that in the last two months both the Booker and the Whitbread had chosen female winners - Pat Barker for The Ghost Road and Kate Atkinson this week for Behind the Scenes at the Museum.

"But that is very, very rare. It has never happened before," she added. Whitbread has had only one previous female winner since 1985 - Joan Brady for Theory of War.

The crucial question for the founders of the Orange Prize is whether the best women writers will want to associate themselves with an award arguably tainted by the "lame-duck" brush.

Eighteen months ago the late Sir Kingsley Amis helped derail its original launch when he said disdainfully: "If I were a woman, I would not want to win this prize. One can hardly take the winner of this seriously."

The then sponsors, Mitsubishi, pulled out and have been replaced by Orange, the mobile phone company.

Yesterday A S Byatt, the 1990 winner of the Booker for Possession, was unsure whether she would wish to enter. "I am against anything which ghettoises women. That is my deepest feminist emotion," she said.

"I think these women judges should be asked in each year of the Booker which women had written a very important book that should have been shortlisted. My opinion is for the last 10 years or so it is observable that there have not been as many good women writers as men."

The first Orange Prize will be awarded on 15 May. Novels published in the UK between 1 April last year and 31 March this year are eligible; entries will be submitted by publishers.