Patronage of the worst kind

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The Independent Online
Behind the highly venerable concept of giving prizes to writers lies the idea that good books and their authors frequently miss out on two things - sufficient publicity for their work and sufficient money to continue producing it. Therefore, the news that Orange, the mobile phone company, has set up a new literary prize worth pounds 30,000 is momentous and cheering.

Because so many books are written about so many things it is also eminently understandable that prizes should be limited to particular sorts of books, the kind donors see as unfairly treated by the market. A patron of the arts is in a privileged position to define a vision of the world via the choice of artists he or she sponsors. Someone who believes that more people should write books like Aristotle, Diderot or Proust could award a prize to anyone who attempted anything in that genre.

It is therefore with interest that one views the area Orange wishes to promote and encourage with its generous prize. This is where the problem starts, for it turns out that their prize has absolutely no conditions other than that it has to be awarded to a woman. Why a woman, one may ask? What is it about being a woman that is particularly under threat, in need of attention, or indeed distinctive from being a man when it comes to picking up a pen? Women regularly win literary prizes, the Whitbread and Booker this year. They write as many books as men and depict their own gender with no more success than types such as Flaubert.

Why did Orange not identify an element in the writing of certain women that it particularly liked and then choose to award the prize to anyone, be it male or female, who handled the theme well? Dilemmas of unhappily married women are often better treated by women than men, but something is wrong with a prize that would have excluded Tolstoy.

The reader may be wondering about the author, though being a male writer happy to receive pounds 30,000 does not, by definition, invalidate the argument, which would stand even if Vodafone offered a male equivalent next week. That it probably won't reflects Orange's underlying "chivalrous" but patronising attitude to women writers: that they are creatures under threat. What the country needs are literary prizes that encourage specific ways of writing, particular ways of conceiving experience. They should reflect the tastes and visions of their donors. British Airways could encourage books on flying, Marks & Spencer, beautifully packaged works on domestic subjects, and a mobile phone maker could aid writers of works written entirely in the dialogue form.

The writer is the author of 'Essays in Love' (Macmillan pounds 5.99), 'The Romantic Movement' (pounds 5.99) and 'Kiss and Tell' (pounds 9.99).