Friday, 2 July 2010

Orange Prize for Fiction: A Sexist Award

Barbara Kingsglover’s  Lacuna won this year’s Orange prize for fiction. According to the chair of the judges it was a book of “breathtaking scale and shattering poignancy”. Credit must be given to the judges who, despite the shattering experience, picked themselves up and presented a beaming Kingsglover, a finalist in 1999 for her worldwide best-seller, The  Poisonwood Bible, with the £ 30,000 cheque.

Some have suggested that the Orange prize should become a part of the ‘trinity’ of the UK literary prizes, along with the Man Booker Prize and the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Book Award.

I have a slight problem with this. Call me cantankerous, but to my mind the Orange Prize will never have the same shine as the Man Booker, for one simple reason: male authors are not allowed to compete for the Orange Prize; it is an award exclusively for female writers.

The idea of establishing the award exclusively for female writers was first mooted apparently by Kate Mosse, the best-selling author of the 2005 novel Labyrinth (I have to read it one of these days), who was mightily pissed off (allegedly) by the all-male short list of what was then the Booker prize, in 1991.

I really don’t see the point, in this day and age, of discriminating on the basis of gender. You might as well announce a prize exclusively for, I don’t know, people with Down’s syndrome or folk from Norfolk. I am sure these groups have also been consistently overlooked for literary awards. Indeed the prejudice might be such that they might not even find publishers for their literary outputs.

If we take a look at the winners of the Man Booker prize, generally considered to be the most prestigious literary award in the UK, we note that in the forty years since it was first launched, 25 men and 15 women have won the award. Hardly the case of women writers being consistently overlooked, I would have thought. True, some great women writers are missing from the list, such as Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Anita Desai; but so are some very talented male writers, for example, Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, Martin Amis, and William Boyd. Indeed there have been occasions when female writers have even benefitted as the judges could not agree amongst themselves as to which amongst the shortlisted male writers should be awarded the prize, and ultimately chose the woman writer as a compromise choice. Penelope Fitzgerald won the Booker prize in 1979 for Offshore. However, if the scurrilous memoir (Sir Vidia’s Shadow) of Paul Theroux, who was on that year’s panel of judges, is to be believed, none of the judges felt that the novel was worthy of the award. The reason Offshore was chosen, was the two groups that had formed within the panel simply could not agree whether V.S. Naipaul or Patrick White should be awarded the prize, and  settled for Fitzgerald in the end, towards whom, rather her novel, the warring factions were indifferent. Now don’t get me wrong; Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my favourite writers (although Offshore is not, in my humble opinion, her best offering (it goes without saying that what I think matters to no one save myself)); I am merely pointing out that Fitzgerald won the 1979 Booker prize for reasons other than literary. The Bone People, the 1985 Booker winner, the debut (and to date only) novel of the Maori writer Keri Hulme, is one of the worst books I have wasted my money on. When I begin reading a book, I generally persevere till the end (especially if I have paid for it). When it comes to reading, I should like to think that I am a patient person by nature and have a high threshold for discarding a novel as bootless; The Bone People crossed that threshold by the width of Siberia. The book was unreadable; it is the only book I can think of in the last ten years I did not finish despite two or three attempts.  Mind you, Bone People is not the only disappointing Booker winner I have had the misfortune to read. There was Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, which was a monumental exercise in tedium. If the novel had any point to it, it was buried deep under the avalanche of trivia with which Carey deluged the reader. His second Booker winner, The True History of the Kelly Gang was much more interesting and readable, although his deliberate omission of any punctuation marks—allegedly to convey the fact that Kelly was semiliterate—was gimmicky and unnecessary. The joint winner of the 1992 Booker prize The Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unswarth (another writer I rate highly; his Pascali’s Island is a very favourite novel), was so relentlessly grim and dreary that by comparison the monthly Church newsletter is a bowl of strong coffee. However, neither of the books comes anywhere near The Bone People which leaves the reader comatose with the blahs.

The Orange Prize began its life for no other reason than that some female writers were cheesed off because of their ill-founded belief that female writers were consistently overlooked for major literary awards, and decided that the best way to redress was to blatantly discriminate against male writers. The Prize began its life out of pique.

Nevertheless, since the prize, like old age, cannot simply be wished away, I thought I should have a look at the Orange winners in the past 15 years, since it was established. Of the fifteen Orange winners, I have read eight. I have no intention of reading Marilynne Robinson’s Home, the 2009 winner, as I did not like at all her earlier novel, Gilead, for which she won the Pulitzer. I struggled to finish the novel, which seemed  like a long religious essay, and I doubt anyone other than a fundamentalist Christian would have enjoyed, or even understood, the soliloquy of its narrator that would have rendered a donkey catatonic. I most definitely plan to read Rose Tremain’s Road Home. I have read a few of Tremain’s novels and have loved all of them, Restoration being my favourite. I bought Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin the year it won the orange, but was slightly put off by the writing style, which I felt was tortuous. So I put it away, thinking I would read it some other time, and never really got round to do that. However, since it has been chosen as the people’s most favourite Orange prize winner, I shall give it a go. Interestingly Lionel Shriver’s real name is Margaret Ann, which she changed to Lionel because of her belief that men have an easier life (where did she get this idea from?), and I am sure the irony of winning a women-only prize will not have lost on her. I shall also read Chimamanda  Nagozi Addichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun (2007 winner), as I enjoyed her debut novel, inspired though it was (by the author’s own admission) by Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Of the Orange Prize winners I have managed to read, my favourite is Linda Grant’s When I lived in Modern Times which won the prize in 2000. I vaguely remember that anonymous charges of plagiarism were levelled at Grant within hours of her surprise win, piping the bookies’ favourite, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, to the post. Apparently Grant wanted to credit A.J. Sherman’s oral history of British Palestine, Mandate Days, but was advised against it by her publishers, Granta. The charges of plagiarism were probably motivated by that eternal human emotion: jealousy. Whoever had levelled the baseless accusation at Grant, who is a top rate novelist, did not even have the guts to come out in the open and chose to hide behind the cloak of anonymity. Zadie Smith (another writer who decided to change her name, Sadie, which she thought was not exotic enough, but stuck to her gender when selecting her new name) won the prize in 2006 for On Beauty. On Beauty is witty, entertaining, and eminently readable (reminiscent of vintage David Lodge, and, as with many of Lodge's novels, On Beauty has academia as its backdrop). The only problem is the plot structure is lifted lock, stock and barrel from E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, without any acknowledgement. The late Carol Shield won the prize in 1998 for Larry’s Party which, in my view, is her weakest novel. A boring monotonous tale of the boring life of a boring man, the novel never really gets out of the left lane and Shield’s home grown truths begin to irritate you after a while. Larry’s Party is not a patch on her Pulitzer winner The Stone Diaries. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which won the 2002 Orange Prize, is dreadful. Patchett  took a tired uninspiring idea and hacked out a plangent hackneyed novel. I did not like Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, which won the inaugural prize in 1996, either. It was well written, but lacked fatally in animation. Reading it was like eating a highly orchestrated but flavourless salad. I have not read any of Dunmore's novels since. I quite liked Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces, which won the 1997 Orange Prize (although I enjoyed Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which won the Booker that year, even more, heavily inspired though it was, in its narrative style, by Salman Rushdie). Michaels considers herself primarily a poet, which probably explains the excessively lyrical language employed throughout the novel (that rendered, to me, some sections of the novel almost undecipherable). I thoroughly enjoyed Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighbourhood, which won the 1999 Orange Prize. Simply yet beautifully written and hauntingly atmospheric, the novel, which was part whodunit (and sustained the reader’s interest until the end) and part rite-of-passage, was a superb achievement. (With great expectations and anticipation, I bought Berne’s next novel, A Perfect arrangement; it was competently written, but was a slight letdown.) The novel that won the Man-Booker in 1999, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, remains for me one of the greatest novels I have ever read.

A welcome aspect of the literary prizes is that the promotion of the short-listed novels and winners introduces readers to writers they might otherwise not have tried. I had never heard of Andrea Levy until she won the Orange and Whitbread award for her fourth novel, Small Island, in 2004. I bought Small Island only because it won the prize and liked it a lot. I then bought all of Levy’s previously published novels, and liked them even more. But for the Orange Prize, I would have missed out on an excellent writer. (This is true of any awards. DBC—Dirty But Clean—Pierre was the surprise winner of the 2003 Booker prize for his debut novel, Vernon God Little. It took me a while to get into Pierre’s (real name Peter Finlay) Tex-Mex saga of its titular fifteen year old protagonist (described by the New York Times as Holden Caulfield on Ritalin), but once I did, I found the book unputdownable. Pierre’s quirky sense of humour and unusual phraseology got me hooked till the end. I quite enjoyed his second novel (Ludmila’s Broken English) as well, although it did not match the success of Vernon God Little; in fact it pretty much sank without trace.

I remain opposed to the concept of Orange prize on matters of principles. I think it is a sexist award, and I find it surprising that so many established female writers agree to enter their novels for the prize. I am sure if ever a male-only literary award were announced, many amongst the established male writers would shun it for being inherently unfair.

Book of the Month: Diary of A Bad Year (J.M. Coetzee)

In recent years, J.M. Coetzee, the 2003 recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, seems to have dispensed with the traditional way of story-telling that we generally associate with a novel. Some of his novels (BoyhoodYouth) were so heavily autobiographical, you wondered why they were not marketed as memoirs. (The third part of the fictionalised memoir, Summertime, was published in 2009.) In 2003, the year he was awarded the Nobel, Coetzee published Elizabeth Costello. The novel consists of seven lectures delivered by its eponymous heroine, whose oeuvre resembles closely that of Coetzee, on subjects as varied as the novel and animal rights. Some of the ‘lectures’ were delivered by Coetzee himself in real life. Quite why Coetzee decided to publish these lectures in the novel form—there was little or no thematic continuity—instead of a non-fiction compendium was not clear to many. Costello gatecrashed into Coetzee’s next novel, too, Slow Man, when she turned up uninvited at the doorsteps of the protagonist, a man called Rayment, and tried to take over his life, much to his resentment. It was left to the readers to figure out why Costello, a famous novelist, decided to descend upon the protagonist who was not a writer and had never met her. If Costello was Coetzee’s literary alter ego, Rayment, a sixty-something man, who lived alone in Australia (Coetzee’s adopted country for the past decade) also had some shades of the real life Coetzee.

In Diary of A Bad Year, Coetzee has created another literary alter ego. He is a famous novelist, originally from South Africa (Coetzee’s country of birth) but now living alone in Australia, who is one of the six writers from all over the world invited by a German publishing company to contribute to a book entitled ‘Strong Opinions’. The writer is referred to, throughout the novel, by his initials, JC (also Coetzee’s initials). JC is a troubled soul. He is troubled about a lot of things which he feels are not right with the world we live in. Since he has been given a cart blanche by his publisher he expatiates on wide-ranging subjects such as the origin of state, anarchism, democracy, terrorism, Machiavelli, asylum in Australia, probability, numbers, intelligent designs, and even Toni Blair. As with the ‘lectures’ in Elizabeth Costello, these musings have little thematic coherence. The conventional novel happens at another level. In the laundry room of his apartment block JC meets a young half-Australian-half-Philippino woman called Anya who lives in the same apartment block with her boyfriend, Alan, who is an investment consultant. She is between jobs and JC hires her as his typist. His eye-sight is deteriorating—so he says—and he can’t type easily—he may or may not be showing the early signs of Parkinsonism. However JC is also attracted to her, a fact that has not gone unnoticed either by Anya or by her world-weary boyfriend. Allan is in no doubt that the only reason why JC has employed Anya without so much as inquiring whether she can type or asking to see recommendations from her previous employers is because he letches after her. Anya has little interest in the topics on which JC opines—indeed she finds his ‘strong opinions’ uninteresting—however, the opinions soon become a regular topics of after-dinner conversations between her and Allan. Allan abhors the socialist idealism of JC—which he dismisses as naive—preferring to see the world in the light of harsh everyday realities. In their conversations Allan alternates between severe criticism and mockery of JC’s view. As the work progresses, Anya begins to suspect that Allan has been secretly reading the manuscripts she has been typing when, in the course of their conversations, he starts referring to JC’s opinions which she has typed but not mentioned to him. When confronted Allan admits to spying: but not on her; he has been spying on JC himself, having introduced a Spyware programme on the hard drive of JC’s computer. If Anya was in two minds about throwing a hissy fit upon hearing this, her doubts are removed when Allan informs her that it is not JC’s opinions—for which he does not care in any case—but his money—3 million dollars—that he is after. Allan has found out about JC’s will according to which his estate would be bequeathed to his sister upon his death. However, the sister has died seven years ago, which means—since JC has not bothered to make a new will—that when JC dies, all the money would go to an obscure animal charity for which JC’s sister used to work. It is an arrant waste of money, according to Allan; and if the doddering fool is disinclined to do anything about it, Allan would do it for him. The investment consultant has cooked up a fiendish scheme (worthy of a Jeffrey Archer novel or a threequal of Ocean’s Eleven) which involves fictitious companies in Switzerland and off shore accounts in the Cayman Islands, and results in Allan (and Anya, if she joins hands with him) becoming very rich and JC not losing his money, provided the stock markets behaved—as Allan is planning to invest the siphoned of money into the stock market (and is confident of reaping a healthy dividend). It is what they call a win-win situation. (If Allan could only look into the future, he would desist from going ahead with the scheme, as he would see the great recession and the collapse of the stock markets.) As it happens Anya threatens to leave him if he carried out his skullduggery. When faced with the stark choice between potentially unimaginable wealth and a trophy girlfriend Allan baulks. However, the lost opportunity, if that is what it is, still rankles in his mind. Therefore, when JC invites them to his apartment to celebrate the completion of the manuscripts, he has to get it off his chest, which he proceeds to do after helping himself to one too many glasses of champagne, and manages to make a fool of himself and insult Anya at the same time. The upshot is Anya leaves him. (One also hopes that JC, having been made aware of the heinous intentions of the investment consultant, would be more vigilant in future). The novel ends with Anya, who continues to correspond with JC, musing over JC’s death (‘We all have got to die, he is old, he is as ready to go as he will ever be.’) and how she would deport when his time comes (‘I will fly to Sidney. . . I will hold his hand. I can’t go with you . . .it is against the rules . . .but I will . . . hold your hand as far as the gate. At the gate you can let go and give me a smile to show you are a brave boy and get on the boat or whatever it is you have to do . . .sweet dreams, and flights of angels, and all the rest.’)

Diary of A Bad Year reads like two novels in one. The narration serves to make the boundaries between the different components more striking. Each page of the novel is divided into three segments, which are separated from one another by horizontal lines. The first segments in the first section of the novel (entitled 'Strong Opinions’) has little direct connection with the remaining two segments, and can constitute a novella in their own right, a la Elizabeth Costello). In the second section of the novel (entitled ‘Second Diary’), the first segments are of the same nature as those in the first section—JC’s musings on various issues except that they are not for the book the German publisher is planning to bring out. The second segment, in both the sections of the novel is about JC’s thoughts on and his interactions with Anya, while the third and the final segment is about Anya’s take on the same interactions plus her interactions with her boyfriend.

Despite the thematic incongruity between the different sections of the novel, it does not feel like a hodgepodge. JC’s views on democracy, terrorism, the response of the Western governments to the threat to their way of life, their treatment of asylum seekers et cetera are very left wing. JC holds Toni Blair—‘[a man with] no philosophical grounding, and little capacity for introspection, and no inner compass save personal ambition . . .’—in contempt and is an unabashed admirer of the late Harold Pinter, the 2005 recipient of the Nobel Prize of literature. Pinter, who was in the terminal stages of cancer when the award was announced, launched a savage attack on Blair in a recorded speech for his part in the Iraq invasion and called for him to be put on trial as a war criminal. JC’s response is: ‘It takes some gumption to speak as Pinter has spoken. . .there comes a time when the outrage and shame are so great that all calculations, all prudence, is overwhelmed, and one must act, that is to say, speak.’ A counterpoising argument to JC’s views is provided by Allan, who prides himself at dealing with realities. Allan tries to distinguish between the Communists, the old foe, and the Islamists, the latest threat to the Western way of life, along the predictable lines. And he is disparaging not just of JC’s views on politics, he also ridicules JC’s views on philosophy and mathematics: ‘Every words he [JC] says is bullshit.’ At times the reader gets the feeling that they are not so much reading a novel as witnessing an Oxford Society debate, albeit an absorbing and fascinating one.

J.M. Coetzee, together with V.S. Naipaul, is the greatest living writer writing in English. In his long and distinguished career he has handled many narrative forms with great success. Disgrace, arguably his most powerful novel (for which he became the first author to be awarded the Booker prize on two occasions), is in the traditional realistic style, as are some of his other novels most notably The Life and Times of Michael K (for which he won the Booker the first time round) and Waiting for the Barbarians. He used the stream of consciousness technique to devastating effect in In the Heart of Country. In all of his recent novels Coetzee has deliberately removed the space between the narrator and his narrative, and is choosing to appear in them under disguises that camouflage little. Thus the readers are encouraged to think that the views of the protagonists are Coetzee’s own view. He also seems increasingly preoccupied with panoply of contemporary issues, which force their way into his novels as essays. In one of the essays, entitled, ‘Authority in Fiction’ Coetzee, via his alter ego, JC, comes closest to revealing what it is that he is trying to achieve in his recent experiments with the form of novel. He invokes Tolstoy whom JC [Coetzee] greatly admires. ‘No one,’ JC remarks, ‘is better at building authority than Tolstoy. In this sense of the word Tolstoy is the exemplary author.’ JC then goes on to remark that in his later life Tolstoy was treated not just as a great author but as an authority on life, a great man, a sage. JC [Coetzee] then wonders whether authority couldn’t be achieved, not just by the trick of rhetoric, but ‘by opening the poet-self to some higher force, by ceasing to be oneself and beginning to speak vatically.’

One wonders whether Coetzee is not aspiring to be a modern day Tolstoy, a great sage, a wise man, and commentator on the human condition.