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Reading Into Britain's Exclusive Book Awards

One rejects men; another ignores all Americans. There is plenty of discussion about who is left out of the contests -- and why.

June 12, 2005|Vanora Bennett | Special to The Times

LONDON — For book lovers here, June can be the cruelest month. The carefree summer lies ahead, with its pretty British regional book festivals, partying, lecturing and autographing. But first, the literary pecking order must be established. Just one question is on all lips at book parties: Who will win the prizes?

Three literary awards worth a total of $220,000 are presented in June. The Orange and the Samuel Johnson prizes each are worth $55,000, while the new Man Booker International Prize, to be awarded once every two years, is worth $110,000 -- life-changing sums for people scribbling in garrets. And even some of the top losers are winners: Being short-listed can substantially increase sales.

There's just one catch. London's biggest book awards (these three, plus the British Man Booker Prize of $90,000 in October and the Whitbread prize of $55,000 in January) appear designed to exclude as much as to enthuse.

Until the creation of a parallel international prize this year, the Man Booker Prize in practice rewarded all English-language fiction that was not American. And the Orange Prize is for all novelists -- as long as they are not men.

For some critics, the Orange Prize is the cruelest cut of all.

"The Orange Prize is a blot on Britain's literary landscape," fumed one critic, Simon Jenkins, of the London Times.

The prize, which was first given out in 1996, was awarded Tuesday to Lionel Shriver, 48, a North Carolina native. Her novel, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," examines the relationship between a wealthy New Yorker and her son, who kills seven people at his school shortly before his 16th birthday.

The female novelists, publishers and literary agents behind the prize's creation believed that too few women were recognized on the prestigious Booker and Whitbread short-lists. But the money they found to reward women sparked a gender war.

Novelist Kate Mosse, long the driving force behind the Orange, said she thought it would be welcomed by both male and female readers. "I was naive," she said. "I thought everyone concerned about reading books would be happy that there was a new prize. But the first question anyone asked was, 'Are you a lesbian?' "

Opponents, women as well as men, say they object mostly because they feel that the prize entrenches prejudice against women. "It stamps women novelists as also-rans, as literary second-division writers who cannot stand competing with men," Jenkins said.

Anita Brookner, winner of the 1984 Booker prize, said: "I am against positive discrimination. If women want equality, which they do, and which they have largely achieved, they shouldn't ask for separate treatment. If a book is good, it will get published. If it is good, it will get reviewed."

But Valerie Martin, the American writer whose historical novel "Property," about a slave-owning sugar-plantation family near New Orleans, won in 2003, said at the award ceremony that the prize "was founded in a fit of pique, which seems like a very good reason to start something."

The prize's positive effect on sales is undisputed. And, as journalist Geraldine Bedell put it in a sympathetic analysis of the prize's history published in the Observer in March, "In the week of the Orange launch, one broadsheet carried 20 reviews, 19 of books by men. Women publish 70% of novels in Britain. Were they that bad?"

Other prizes have their quirks. The Samuel Johnson is only for nonfiction. The rules of the Whitbread are too complicated for ordinary mortals. (Winners in each of five categories -- poetry, novel, first novel, biography and children's writing -- face off for the big prize) And the Whitbread's judges are occasionally celebrities -- Hugh Grant and Jerry Hall have officiated -- causing some writers to suspect the prize might be losing its gravitas.

However, beyond disputes over the Orange Prize, the angst that most oppresses literary London is that the grandest prize -- the Man Booker -- might be opened to the American titans of literature.

The Man Booker Prize for Fiction has been going for 37 years. Its website scarcely exaggerates when it claims that the award, which guarantees a dramatic increase in sales and worldwide readership, is "of incomparable influence."

So why exclude American writers?

The sponsor, financial services firm Man Group, has for years been keen to let them take part. But the idea prompted panic among British writers who suspected their own offerings would be overshadowed.

Jenkins, the Times writer, finds this literary protectionism "less and less plausible." But few agree.

Novelist Stephanie Merritt summed up the "mixture of cynicism and insecurity" motivating most British writers, wondering in the Observer whether the inclusion of Americans such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow or John Updike might mean that the prize "would effectively become an American award, squeezing out talented but less accessible writers for the Man Group's evil corporate gain?"

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