Eyes on the (Orange) Prize, by Carrie (Nomadreader)

My PhotoNomadreader (Carrie) produces the blog of the same name, where she’s just as likely to review movies as books. She’s an “almost librarian” whose favorite novel is Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, and she has just launched the 20 Under 40 Reading Project, celebrating the literary voices of her generation.

Please welcome today’s guest blogger to The 3 R’s, as she talks about the reading project she almost completed in time for last week’s Orange Prize announcement.

This spring, I decided to read the entire Orange Prize shortlist, which was announced on April 20, before the winner was announced on June 9. It was not a terribly bold decision, as the list includes only six titles and many people not only did it this year, but have done it in prior years. Some even manage to read the longist, which was announced on March 17 and includes twenty (yes 20) titles. Still, I decided to try, and I almost made it happen.
For those of you not familiar with the Orange Prize, it is a literary prize awarded to a female novelist. Short story collections are not considered. The woman may be of any nationality, but eligibility requires the novel be written in English and published in the United Kingdom in the last year. The Orange Prize is quite controversial to some. Some find it sexist and unnecessary to honor only works written by women. Every literary prize will exclude some type of author; the joy for me as a reader is finding the diversity of women writers honored by the Orange Prize.
I love the Orange Prize more than any other literary prize for three reasons, and the fact it excludes men is not one of them. First, it’s an award for novels. Lately the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award have had numerous short story collections as finalists. Short stories are lovely, but I don’t happen to enjoy them nearly as much as I adore novels. Second, it’s an award open to all (female) writers who write in English. There are numerous literary prizes restricted to authors of a single country, and while those prizes are good, I enjoy broad guidelines, which can produce more variety. Third, the Orange Prize places twenty novels on its longlist. Some may say its too many, but I welcome the length of the list. The variety possible with a longlist that long is amazing. 
Truthfully, part of my enjoyment with the Orange Prize does come from it honoring the literary accomplishments of women, and I do believe in consciously acknowledging the contributions of female writers. At the inaugural Empire State Book Festival this past April, I went to a fascinating panel of four women writers: Cathleen Schine, Sally Koslow, Diane Meier and Elizabeth Noble. The women discussed marketing of their books; what the terms chick lit, women’s fiction and literary fiction mean; and the differing perceptions of male and female writers with readers, reviewers and literary prizes. I say I like to read literary fiction, but I fully admit the term is vague at best. I tend to read more female authors than male authors, but I wouldn’t say I read very much women’s fiction. It’s all semantics to a certain extent, but the Orange Prize, like it or not, is part of this discussion. It’s list helps me identify immensely readable literary fiction that happens to be written by women.
The Lacuna: A NovelThe Orange Prize winners and shortlisted books outsell the Booker Prize winners and shortlist (with the notable exception of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi). The prize itself is worth ₤30,000 to the author, but after Barbara Kingsolver won this year’s prize for The Lacuna, her sales on Amazon went up 835%, and the novel flew to #10 on its bestseller charts. The Prize brings attention to books that may have flown under the radar. This year, one of the novels on the shortlist (The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison) had not been reviewed by any newspaper when the longlist was announced. 
I’ve managed to read only five of the six so far (Wolf Hall is next on my list). Two of the six (The Very Thought of You and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle) are not yet published in the U.S., but I was able to read them thanks to the wonderful interlibrary loan program at my university library. I absolutely adored two of the novels: Black Water Rising, the debut literary mystery from Attica Locke set in Houston in the early 1980’s, and The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, the second novel from Monique Roffey that spans fifty years in the life of an ex-patriot couple in Trinidad. I enjoyed The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, even though I didn’t feel it quite measured up to the literary caliber of its peers. Two of the novels, including the winning Lacuna, fell flat for me, but in different ways. Still, I’m glad I read both, even if I didn’t love them. They’re both filled with good writing, if not great story. With this seemingly motley crew of novels, what is the connection? The Orange Prize unites these novels set in different times, places and written in markedly different styles. Two of the protagonists are men. Because the requirements are so few for the Orange Prize, there is wonderful variance in theme, writing, setting and time. 
The greatest joy for me in reading the shortlist this year was interacting with others taking on the same challenge. What started as a personal goal for me as a woman and a reader turned into a wonderful community building experience. An informal book club was born as we read the same six books in about six weeks. We compared and contrasted, and we rarely agreed. Yes, I was disappointed The Lacuna won, both because I didn’t think it was as well-written or as engaging as its fellow shortlisted books, but I’m not sorry I read it. Yes, I walked away with two books I adored, but I learned that talking about books is a very personal thing, and we’re always comparing books to others we’ve read recently, by the same author or similar in some way. To bring together an informal group of readers and bloggers from more than one country to read the same six books and discuss all of them at once was intellectually and emotionally freeing.

I so enjoyed my experience, in fact, I’m not only planning to read this year’s longlist by the end of 2010, I’m planning on reading all twenty novels on the 2011 longlist before the prize is announced next June. I’m also saving my pennies with the hope of traveling to London to see the six shortlisted authors read from their novels and watch the 2011 Orange Prize be awarded. Yes, I’m ambitious, but the sense of personal satisfaction I got from not only reading these novels but engaging in the conversation with like-minded literary enthusiasts was invigorating. I am also considering reading the entire Booker Prize longlist this summer and fall before the winner is announced in October, and I wonder if I will come to love the reading and discussion of Booker Prize nominees and its writers as much as I’ve enjoyed the Orange Prize this year. 

*A note from me: I am an Amazon Associate. Book links in this post are provided by Amazon.com and will generate a small referral me if used for purchases.

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