Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Orange Prize short list

The Orange Prize short list has been announced, and once again Marilynne Robinson’s Home is a finalist.

It is the only title on the list that I am familiar with. Ellen Feldman’s Scottsboro (USA), a historical novel about the famous trial of nine black men accused of gang rape, sounds unpromisingly tendentious. Samantha Harvey’s Wilderness (UK) is an effort to imagine Alzheimer’s from within. Whether the deterioration of a narrator’s memory is more than a narrative device might just make Harvey’s novel worth looking into. Samantha Hunt’s Invention of Everything Else (USA) is a biographical novel about Nikola Tesla, focusing on the inventor’s last years. Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday (Ireland) is a meditative or philosophical novel—can’t tell which without reading it—about how the past informs the present in ways we might never have imagined (in the Prize site’s synopsis). This could either be tripe, or the kind of book with which you work out some of your own ideas. Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (Pakistan) is a post-9/11 novel about the intertwined lives of victims of Hiroshima, Guantánamo Bay, and blah blah blah. Is there any chance at all that this novel contains no expressions of smug political superiority?

In the Guardian’s book blog, Robert McCrum reminisces about the progress of the Orange Prize. I will not essay to be ironical, since my wit is not sufficiently nimble to tease Leftist assumptions about conservatives’ attitude toward a women-only literary award. As McCrum says, “The chauvinist troglodyte naysayers retired to their caves to growl angrily to themselves about gender politics”—although he does not actually name any of those hideous troglodytes. (Hint: they are just as real as Bigfoot.) The only naysayer he quotes is the English novelist A. S. Byatt, who “declared it was ‘a sexist prize,’ one she would have nothing to do with.” But then Byatt has always been a chauvinist.

McCrum is right, though, when he says that the Orange Prize has been a success, and not because of gender politics. “The prize prospered,” he says, “because it selected, and promoted, a remarkable sequence of new fiction by unknowns, from [Canadian] Anne Michaels (Fugitive Pieces) to [Australian] Kate Grenville (The Idea of Perfection) to [Nigerian] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun).” He also points out that, unlike the Man Booker Prize, the Orange is a genuinely Anglophone literary award, not excluding Americans. As such, it is the only genuinely Anglophone literary award with any credibility. After all, the 2009 prize jury properly cold-shouldered Toni Morrison and Curtis Sittenfeld.

Indeed, the roll of past winners is distinguished. The Prize accomplishes what any good literary award should—it promotes the work of first-rate writers who might otherwise be overlooked. What’s to growl about?