The Orange Prize for Fiction was established in the U.K. in 1996 to "[celebrate] excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing from throughout the world." And the list of past winners is littered with the recent female stalwarts of literary fiction; last year's prize went to Barbara Kingsolver for her sixth novel The Lacuna. This year, the BBC notes, three of the five authors on the shortlist are first-time novelists: Téa Obreht, a Serbian and, according to The Telegraph, "the youngest of this year's shortlisted," for her novel The Tiger's Wife, the London-based Emma Henderson for Grace Williams Says It Loud, and Canadian former Sesame Street writer Kathleen Winter, for Annabel. There are also, of course, veterans like the seemingly ever-more-acclaimed Nicole Krauss, who made the list with Great House.
A vigorous crop of new talent would certainly appear to be good news for the vitality of the profession. Out of the fifteen awards since The Orange Prize's establishment, only two have gone to first-time novels--in 1997 and 1999--and though the 1997 winner, Fugitive Pieces, was Anne Michaels's first novel, she was already well established as an award-winning poet. One of the judges, Bettany Hughes, has already commented favorably on the first-timers on the short list, calling the number of strong debut novels "an indicator of the rude health of women's writing." (Perhaps only coincindentally, this is the first Orange Prize shortlist announced since the Orange Award for New Writers was discontinued, according to a FAQ, because its £10,000 prize lost funding from the Arts Council.)
The nice headlines about fresh female talent, however, are particularly interesting when you look back at the debate about women writers in the past year. Last August saw both Katie Roiphe's much-discussed essay about literary productivity and motherhood and Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner's campaign against allegedly sexist literary critics. Roiphe admitted her output had gone way down since the birth of her baby, when she "lost all worldly ambition." She and a friend observed that their favorite writers had few children. Yet "here, sitting in the garden," she wrote, "looking at the eyelashes, would you trade the baby for the possibility of writing The House of Mirth? You would not." The first-time novelists on The Orange Prize's shortlist might reassure those who fretted over Roiphe's turn from keyboards to carpooling.
The other debate focused far less on choice in terms of writing and excellence. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, incensed at The New York Times' fawning coverage of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, suggested that women could write either a bestseller or a book embraced by the Times literary critics, but not both. Weiner wrote of the "very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book." It touched off a massive debate, with some pointing out that the Times is far more critical of its supposed male literary darlings than the two women suggested and some arguing that Picoult and Weiner might not actually be aiming for the kind of literature that Franzen & Co. are. Others, though, like Chris Jackson at The Atlantic, recalled "a recent lunch [he] had with a fellow editor," wherein he couldn't recall the last time he'd read fiction written by a woman. NPR's Linda Holmes likewise took the opportunity to discuss the disastrous "chick lit" label, too often applied to anything written by, written for, or written about women.
The Orange Prize is given specifically for female writing, so it won't be resolving this debate anytime soon. It ties in nicely, though, with Christopher Shea's response to the affaire Picoult-Weiner, a thought-provoking look back in the Globe at the words of the nineteenth-century female novelist George Eliot. "When a woman's talent is at zero," Shea recalled Eliot's words, "journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point."
Does the buzz around the new Orange Prize nominees confirm or disprove that point? Time to get reading and find out, folks.