Message in a Bottle
The P.F.K.A.T.O.P., Wikipedia, and Women

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In 1991, the shortlist for the Booker Prize, the UK’s most prestigious literary award, consisted of six male authors and no women at all. To that point, in fact, only ten percent of all shortlisted books in the history of that prize had been written by women. But the 1991 list was the one that sparked a movement of sorts, as a group was formed dedicated to doing something about this particular kind of gender disparity. By 1996 they’d launched their own award for women’s writing, with a corporate sponsor to promote it and an anonymous donor who agreed to contribute the funding for a £30,000 annual prize. Thus was born the Orange Prize, open to female writers from any nation whose books were published in the UK. Over the years, winners have included Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, Rose Tremain, Ann Michaels, and many others. As of last year, the telecommunications company that had long sponsored the prize decided to focus its efforts elsewhere, so while new sponsorship is being sought, the award is officially referred to as The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I prefer the handle my colleague Cindy coined—The Prize Formerly Known As The Orange Prize, or The P.F.K.A.T.O.P. for short.

This year’s shortlist is a veritable Who’s Who for ladies of letters, all high-visibility, well-respected candidates:

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Mantel has already won just about everything there is to win for her very popular historical novel, and the other nominees are also favorites, here at Island Books and in the larger world. If there’s a dark horse, it must be the entry from Seattle, Maria Semple, who’s a relative newcomer to fiction, although her latest satiric comedy is a runaway hit. It’s great to see one of our own share the spotlight with international bigshots, and that’s one of the nicest aspects of the P.F.K.A.T.O.P. Very few other literary prizes draw from such a broad geography.

But the P.F.K.A.T.O.P. is not without detractors. Since its beginnings, some have criticized it sharply. Booker winner A.S. Byatt called it “a sexist prize” that was “never needed,” and critic Auberon Waugh referred to it as the “Lemon Prize.” The iconoclastic feminist Germaine Greer speculated that we’d next see a prize for “writers with red hair.” On the other hand, American novelist Cynthia Ozick has said that given the global history of sexual discrimination, the prize "was not born into an innocent republic of letters" and went on to say that, "[f]or readers and writers, in sum, the more prizes the better, however they are structured, and philosophy be damned." I tend to take her view on this matter, as I do with most related issues. She can be pretty convincing (and quite funny) on the topic of writing and gender. Watch her eviscerate Norman Mailer at a 1971 debate in New York on the subject of “Women’s Liberation.”

Further proof of the validity of the P.F.K.A.T.O.P., if any was needed, arose from a recent kerfuffle that started on one of the the world’s most visited websites and spread from there. A Wikipedia moderator, motivated by an over-inflated sense of efficiency and who knows what else, decided to streamline the site’s lengthy list of “American Novelists” by moving some members of it into subcategories. He (of course it was a he) began to systematically delete women’s names from the main list and spin them off into their own section, “American Women Novelists,” without creating a comparable “American Men Novelists” section. Most of you will quickly recognize why this was problematic and can skip the next paragraph, but if not, read on.

It’s useful at times to differentiate one thing from another, and no one questions that it’s constructive to do so. That’s why Wikipedia has subcategories in the first place, and why we have more than one section in the bookstore, and why bakeries sell more than one kind of cake. But when those bakeries organize their stock, they don’t pick one flavor to favor. They don’t declare that “cake” by default means “chocolate,” so chocolate cakes don’t need a label, while all other kinds—carrot, angel food, red velvet—get shelved separately. They hang up one big sign that says “CAKE” and stick little identifying flags on all the varieties equally. Cake is cake and writers are writers; they shouldn’t be judged by the color of their frosting or their gender, but instead by the content of their character and the quality of their crumb. So to speak.

After the moderator’s reshuffling was brought to public attention (initially by Amanda Filipacchi, one of the affected writers), Wikipedia rolled back the change, so that’s good. What’s not so good is that it happened in the first place, and that a substantial number of people still don’t understand what the brouhaha was about, including the guy who started the whole thing. You can read some defensive comments from him at the bottom of this summary article from the New York Review of Books.

I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but until everyone recognizes that you can’t measure the difference between men and women by how much one gender deviates from “normal,” I think there’s a place for the P.F.K.A.T.O.P. I’ll be applauding the winner on June 5th, whoever she may be.

—James

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