How unlikely that I would ever gate-crash my way into the inner sanctum of the Orange Prize for Fiction awards party, so I have to tack dovegreyreader neatly and unobtrusively onto the haute couture coat-tails of someone else, and I was delighted that novelist Amanda Craig resolved her identity crisis in time to be there and report back for us. Royalty were in attendance so photographic evidence of existence required which Amanda will explain. Personally I find my Boots Advantage card has got me into all sorts of places (Dartmoor Prison...seriously, yes, with a book group) requiring ID but I doubt it would have passed muster for this.
There was much tongue-in-cheek talk on Facebook during the day about the reading habits of the Royals and curtsy practice, so it's good to have the definitive version of events, and my thanks to Amanda, long listed for the prize this year with Hearts and Minds, for taking the time to share her thoughts.
And congratulations to Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna and everyone at Faber for beating the odds and winning. Having decided just to read the winner this year and not the long list...and then not the short list, and thinking I'd be let off the hook because it would be Wolf Hall, my thoughts on the book drekkly, meaning all in good time.
What fun to go to the 21st Orange Prize party, the annual Walpurgis Night for women novelists! As ever, it was held at the “ballroom” of Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank, next to the London Eye, and as ever the sun shone and the champagne flowed. I never get to enjoy the latter because I drive there, and the delicious pink ginger non-alcoholic cocktail ran out much faster – but the biggest cheer of the evening was for Tattinger, which provided the booze.
This may give you some idea of what the evening tends to be like. Although there are a handful of nervous men in suits – usually agents like Derek John and Ed Victor, plus a dash of male novelists like James Runcie, Russell Celyn Jones and Anthony Quinn – most are women. And what women! From the tiny, fiery Lisa Allardice of the Guardian Review section to the stately, revered Jenni Murray of Woman’s Hour, almost every woman involved in fiction tends to turn up. (Unless, that is, the PR firm has once again neglected to check its back-lists of founders, former judges and critics.)This year there was a particular fuss because HRH Camilla was the “secret” VIP. We all had to bring photo ID, said the invite sternly, which sent me into a panic because my passport is currently languishing at the Russian Embassy awaiting a visa.
This, plus a degree of Republicanism, made me and a lot of others very prepared to be cross about Camilla being invited in the first place. Apart from Prince Charles, whose susceptibility to the late Laurens Van Der Post is well-known, the Royal Family is not known to like reading. Every year, a selection of books is chosen to be sent to Balmoral, but we never hear a peep about how they go down; the comments of the late Queen Mother about TS Eliot as “such a gloomy man, looked as if he worked in a bank” still rankle. But – blow me down. The Duchess of Cornwall in person not only exuded raffish charm of the sort that made her instantly popular but made a long, lucid and totally believable speech about how much she loves reading the Orange short-list every year. She has a marvellously deep voice, and is the kind of person you could imagine curling up with a book and a tot of whiskey just like the rest of us.
The format of the party goes as follows: cram several hundred literary people in a low ceilinged room, with loud music, get them hot, drunk and excited and then make long anguished speeches about how grateful you are to Orange, and how all should have prizes but sadly can’t. Kate Mosse, the eternally elegant and energetic co-founder of the prize made her usual acknowledgements, the Man From Orange told us it was All About Communication, and then the prize-giving began. There are three – one for a short story by an unpublished writer, sponsored by Harper’s Bazaar, one for a First Novel and one for a Novel. This year there was a fourth, awarded by the Duchess, in which teenage judges chose their favourite from past winners and picked Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces (against stiff competition from We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, which presumably was a bit too close to the bone for them.)
Personally, the novel I’m looking forward to reading is the winner of the New Fiction award, Irene Sabatini. The Boy Next Door is a cross-racial love story set in Zimbabwe at the time of the Revolution. The judges of the New Writing Award passed on the two first novels that, to general surprise, made it onto the short-list for the Novel award – Rosie Alison’s (aka Mrs Tim Watersone) The Very Thought of You, and Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising, a thriller. Daisy Goodwin, the Chair, described five of them enthusiastically - though she forgot to mention the sixth, Monique Roffey’s The White Woman on a Green Bicycle, until prompted by the audience. She then called it “a work of genius, of course.”
As everyone will now know, Hilary Mantel did not win, and neither did Lorrie Moore’s novel (generally agreed to be not a patch on her short stories) despite strong championship from the Guardian. It went to Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna, which few in the audience had found palatable though there was general enthusiasm for her because of The Poisonwood Bible, and because she made a most graceful and touching speech about how, when the latter had been shortlisted eleven years ago, she had been unable to fly over due to having had a baby.
Despite the gruesome blasts of music that punctuated each announcement, and no sign of the gorgeous six-foot transvestite saxophonist who usually plays at the party, it was a good evening. Trays of salad in glass tumblers began to circulate (though few would touch the one with beetroot in, for obvious reasons), followed by dessert, but once the prizes were over the real business of the evening – gossip – began in earnest, and a good time was had by all. Even if far too many authors are now being forced to self-publish, the prize stimulates interest and investment in new fiction that, as the TV adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island this year showed, is usually justified.
Many years ago, when the Orange Prize first began, I would be rung up by newspapers like the Telegraph and asked if I would care to attack it. Surely I, as a novelist, didn’t want any special pleading? They would offer me quite large sums of money, and I would always say, regretfully, No; as a feminist, I would not attack something which so clearly redressed an injustice.
As time has gone on, the attitude has changed to requests for pieces saying, Now more women have won the Booker, can’t the Orange go away? Again, the answer is No. The Orange has done immense good in promoting serious new literature by women in libraries and schools as well as in bookshops, and although five times more men than women still win the Booker and the Costa prizes, there is at least the Orange as a court of appeal. It is still a kind of Cinderella prize, but in the best way: Irene Sabatini’s The Boy Next Door, which won the New Writer’s award, had not had a single review, for instance. Now, it will. What it has created is not a ghetto but a forum in which women’s writing is taken seriously, as an art as well as an entertainment. I think Angela Carter, who was one of a number of great women writers who died before its inception, overlooked and unrewarded, would have been as pleased as I was to see how something that began in a cramped flat in North London should see its 21st year in with such style.