For three days last week, London's Southbank Centre turned Orange. On Monday, some 800 men and women readers packed the auditorium of the Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear the six authors shortlisted for the 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.
On Tuesday, in a sell-out event in the Blue Room at the Royal Festival Hall, the three debut novelists up for the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers talked about writing, reading, getting started and a whole lot more besides. Finally, on Wednesday, as libraries and reading groups across the country held "Orange parties", nearly 1,000 authors, publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians, journalists, businesspeople, politicians and poets cheered when Rose Tremain was announced the winner of the 2008 Orange for her 14th novel, The Road Home.
Since 1996, the OBPF has celebrated outstanding fiction by women from all over the world. From Turkey to Australia, Iran to Nigeria, the column inches devoted to the longlists and shortlists has been terrific. In 13 years, the prize has extended its range of educational, literacy and research initiatives, looked for new ways to promote reading, built literary bridges and promoted fiction by women to millions worldwide.
This year, alongside the thoughtful celebrations, there's been the same old muttering about the eligibility criteria. A handful of negative soundbites, some dating back 13 years, have been dusted off and pressed into service. But the majority view at the Southbank Centre was that the need to keep banging the "it's not fair" drum suggested that the prize is doing an important job. Otherwise, why is it that in 2008, a celebration of women's literary achievements is seen as threatening, radical, challenging?
On book tours for much of the spring, I saw for the first time at first hand how the Orange is received in other parts of the world. In Bulgaria and Greece, the USA and France, Norway and Canada, everywhere I found a passion for discussion about the novels, the writers, the ideas. There were raised eyebrows in Sofia and Athens, New York and Paris at why journalists "waste time", as one man put it, challenging the founding principles of the prize so many years after the event, rather than talking about the books.
As a writer, there are some prizes that I'm eligible for, others I'm not. But the idea that an appropriate reaction to this is to grumble seems, at best, childish and at worst, a kind of bullying. All prizes have eligibility criteria – nation
ality, genre, age, gender, country of residence, subject matter, religion.
But the simple truth is that, for most of us, celebrating achievement is a good thing, not a bad thing. Literary awards matter because they get people reading, because they celebrate achievement. Because, crucially, they keep writing of excellence and originality at the heart of things – the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Decibel Short Story Competition, the Wingate Prize, the Man Booker, the Independent Foreign Fiction Award – all have a different focus, but, put together, they provide a backbone to the literary year.
So to return to Rose Tremain, not only an exceptional novelist, but also generous and supportive to fellow writers. In her acceptance speech – her first for a major literary award – she paid tribute to the Orange for being, first and foremost, about celebration. The response from the papers, radio, television, audiences, the hundreds of readers holding their own shadow parties in libraries, the thousands visiting the website, suggests they agree. Viva Orange. Viva Rose!
The novelist Kate Mosse is co-founder and honorary director of the OBPF
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