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leah mclaren

As of next year, the Orange Prize for Fiction will officially be drained of colour. The British telecommunications giant Orange announced this week that it was discontinuing its sponsorship of the international prize for female authors, leaving organizers to find another sponsor, and with it, a new name. (The £30,000 annual award is funded by a private trust, so the withdrawal of sponsorship does not imperil the future of the prize, only the branding.)

The Orange Prize seemed an odd creation back in 1996, when it was founded, and seems odder still today. Along with the Booker and the Nobel, the Orange is one of those big international literary awards that comes and goes each year with the same demure, soft-clapping hoopla. But the fact remains: A literary prize based on gender is a fundamentally strange idea, albeit one with good intentions. Its aim – to raise the profile of women writers in the English language – is as vague and questionable as it ever was. And 16 years on, it's not clear if the prize is even accomplishing that.

Nevertheless, the arts news this week was filled with bittersweet statements from authors and telecom executives alike, reflecting on the end of the long and, er, fruitful relationship between the two groups. Kate Mosse, novelist and honorary director of the prize, gushed in a statement that the "partnership has delivered everything – and more – than we hoped for." While Steven Day, brand chief for Orange, described the decision as "tinged with sadness."

But maybe it's not such a bad thing for a literary award like the Orange Prize to pause and re-evaluate – not only its sponsorship, but its mandate. The Orange was founded in response to anger over an all-male Booker Prize short list in 1991. From the beginning, it has drawn criticism of sexism – a complaint generally deflected by supporters who point out that every literary prize in existence, apart from the Nobel, places restrictions on entry.

But this argument lumps the broad and politically charged category of gender in with far narrower and culturally finite distinctions such as language and nationality. It's also one that I don't think holds up, particularly in a time when women have never been more powerful in the world of English letters – both as writers and readers of fiction. An English-language literary prize for women, one might argue, is a bit like a money-making prize for educated white men.

Maybe so, say the Orange-istas, but female writers are still underawarded compared to their male counterparts. According to research by Orange, 70 per cent of English-language fiction is read by women, yet prize short lists are still dominated by men. Novelist Linda Grant, who won the prize in 2000, articulated her theory why in The Guardian this week. "The answer is not that women are writing inferior fiction, it is that their books are not being submitted."

She is speaking of Britain, of course. In Canada, a count back to 2005 reveals that women narrowly edge out men as nominees for our highest-profile prize, the Giller. But here in the Orange's founding country, a similar count of Booker Prize nominees reveals the opposite: Men continue to dominate. Interestingly, the reason for this might well be the existence of the Orange Prize itself, which has become an established pink ghetto – albeit a distinguished one.

Perhaps without it there as a buffer, British publishers might have done more over the past 16 years to reflect gender equality in their other prize submissions. In Canada, women writers have been playing with the big boys for some time now. This is why in 2008, when I was on the authors' committee of the Writers' Trust of Canada, we discontinued the Marian Engel Award (for a woman writer in mid-career) and created the Engel/Findlay Award to honour a body of work by any established Canadian writer, male or female. Assessing the literary landscape, the committee decided that a gendered prize was no longer needed – and we were right.

It was a wise choice, and one that reflected the progress (if not outright dominance) of female Canadian writers on a level playing field. But this is the problem with ghettos and the identity-specific awards they beget: They often prevent the very thing they aim to achieve. Like any bureaucracy – or union, or organization born out of grievance, they resist shrinkage or dissolution; not necessarily because the world would be thrown into imbalance but because institutions, once instituted, fight for their existence by any means available.

People who base their identity on misgiving tend to hold on to their misgivings. Without them, they'd have to be someone else, and that's inconvenient, to say the least.

Women writers will continue to insist the Orange Prize is just as necessary and socially effective as it ever was, with little discernible progress to show for it. Soon, there will be a new name and sponsor; and with it, a whole new era of self-justification will begin. The Orange is dead, long live the Orange.

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