Should There Be an ‘Orange Prize’ for Arab Women Writers?

This is what you win if you get the Orange prize. Well, this and £30,000.

Yesterday, I noted that the big controversy (so far) in the 2012 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, “Arabic Booker”) longlist is its surfeit of women.

I quoted Susannah Tarbush: “Complaints about the low representation of women in a literary prize are hardly unique to IPAF or the Arab world: it was unhappiness about a perceived male dominance of the Booker Prize that led to the launching in the UK in 1996 of the Orange Prize for fiction by women.”

And asked: Should there be an Orange Prize for women who write novels in Arabic? And added: A question for another day.

Another day has come, as good as any for exploring the question of gender equity. First, we’ll 1) set aside whether literary prizes are a positive thing for fiction and for human culture and assume that they are. Then we’ll 2) even set aside the question of who funds these literary prizes, and why, and what they hope to gain.

We’ll only ask: Would having an “IPAF for Girls” (the most derogatory interpretation) support Arabic-writing women novelists or ghettoize them?

British novelist A.S. Byatt is one of many who criticize the prize. She said in The Guardian, of the Orange: “The Orange prize is a sexist prize. You couldn’t found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter – which I don’t believe in. It’s honourable to believe that – there are fine critics and writers who do – but I don’t.”

Orange Prize judge Michèle Roberts is, in the other camp, one of many who defend it. She argued in The Independent that the prize is “good for women writers.”

She added:

Some women novelists angrily felt that gender should not be the focus in this way; that they would be pushed back into the old camp of “women writers”, labelled and patronised as separate, different and therefore second-rate. Some male critics resented even having to think about gender at all, scornfully denying that women writers had ever been discriminated against and certainly shouldn’t get special treatment. They fulminated that if women wanted equality, dammit, then they should compete equally with the chaps. Some people, myself among them, liked the idea of the French Prix Femina style of prize: an all-female panel of judges sifting novels by both men and women.

But apparently similar problems in the Anglo, French and Arabic-writing worlds are no reason we should call for similarly patchy solutions. There are surely more creative answers to the question of how we can support women’s creative endeavors.

But back to our question: What about the prize(s)?

I don’t know why there are fewer women on the Anglo Booker lists. But I do believe that part of the reason for the relative absence of women writers on the IPAF long and shortlists (with the exception of 2011) is almost certainly not the judges’ “fault,” but a lack of women-authored titles submitted by publishers. I say almost certainly because the names of the submitted titles are kept secret, as prize administrator Fleur Montanaro puts is, partly so that authors who are not nominated “don’t lose face, as such.”

But this secrecy also serves to shroud publishers’ role in supporting or suppressing their women (or experimental, or popular, or funny, or serious) writers.

Certainly publishers should submit their “best titles” with no thought to whether they’re by men or women. But what does “best” mean, anyway? Publishers must submit with an angle on what they think will win: More “Western-friendly” titles? More mannish titles? More serious? Historical? Topical?

Last year—before the 2010 “gender-even” longlist was released—I had asked leading Arabic-literature scholar Dr. Samia Mehrez if she gave any credence to complaints that women were underrepresented on the IPAF lists:

Yes, I would give credence to that, considering that there are enough women writers in the region to merit [a presence on the list].

I think it would be fair to say that one should expect women on that shortlist, because the literary production by women…is such that they merit not just one, but also they deserve to be represented by more than one.

I would also like to take a moment to put paid to the misapprehension that Europeans are primarily interested in Arab women writers. There is a strong belief that Arabic literature in translation is overwhelmingly female, and that Westerners are going out of their way to translate (exclusively) women writers. What Youssef al-Bazzi wrote in Banipal 36 (“We can state here that there is not a single Arab woman writer, regardless of the quality of her literary writing, who has not met with European deference, translation, or ‘presence.'”) is just not borne out by the percentages of Arab women writers in translation. Sorry.

Now, do Western publishers look for a certain sort of “Western-liberationist” women’s writing? Perhaps. But that hardly helps the funny, bold Ghada Abdel Aals or the thoughtful, experimental Radwa Ashours of the world.

But, for the moment, who cares what Western publishers like. Do Arabic-language readers want to support Arab women writers? Let’s say yes, why not, a more diverse reading experience benefits us all. Would a prize like the Orange support or hobble Arab women writers?

(Or both?)

Responses on Twitter:

dabujaber Diana Abu Jaber: it’s hard for women writers in any language, including English, I favor anything that helps bring them recognition.

@kohlpublishing kohlpublishing: Given the rise in book sales for an Orange Prize winner, an Arab Writers prize would make the winners much better known in UK.