The End of the Orange?

The Orange Prize has always been a favorite topic around these parts, whether we’re celebrating, handicapping, or complaining. So it was with heavy heart that I read the Guardian’s announcement last week that Orange, the UK telecom company behind the prize, is withdrawing its sponsorship.

The prize was first established to address the fact that literary awards tended to “overlook accomplished, challenging, important fiction by female authors.” It seems to have had its genesis in some kind of literary do:

It was in January 1992 that a group of journalists, reviewers, agents, publishers, librarians, booksellers, male and female, gathered together in a flat in London, to drink, to talk about reading and publishing, reviewing and prize giving, floating the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize: a prize that would celebrate women’s writing from all over the world, one that would put readers centre stage, one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives associated with it, one that would be fun!

It’s to the credit of everyone involved that the idea survived the morning after and evolved into the Orange Prize, first awarded in 1996 to Helen Dunmore for A Spell of Winter. Past winners have included Anne Michaels, Carol Shields, Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marilynne Robinson, and Barbara Kingsolver. But the Orange has never been a celebration of the blockbuster, and the lists have always been interesting. The £30,000 prize money certainly doesn’t hurt (nor does the strange little accompanying bronze statue, the “Bessie,” unless I suppose someone drops it on their foot), but the controversies and debate that surround every year’s short list are priceless in terms of buzz. I’ve made my peace with the question of whether the contest criteria ghettoize women’s fiction—it’s a just another metric, which every competition needs in some form or another—and here Orange has gone and dropped it.

Author Kate Mosse, co-founder of the prize and honorary judge, says:

“We’re excited at the idea of taking the prize on for another 17 years, and working with a new sponsor to grow it. It’s very rare for a sponsorship like this to come onto the market – the investment generates something in the region of £17.5m a year in advertising, and the cultural capital of the women’s prize for fiction is practically second to none. The potential is very exciting.”

No new sponsors are being discussed at the moment, and of course there’s always the matter of that name—dropping a title with such high recognition factor is always a shame. My first thought was that the Susan G. Komen people might want to pony up, since they could do with a little positive PR these days. But… the Pink Prize? Fish in a barrel for its critics, certainly. Then again, as long as their money’s green, I don’t suppose that’s such a big deal.

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