Rolled cigarettes, mothers in literature and a new fiction prize for women
2012 Orange Prize winner Madeline Miller for The Song of Achilles


There were a few things I learned on the road this fall including how to smoke a rolled cigarette with Martin Amis. (Gingerly, and only half way down.) What to say about mothers and fathers in literature: in Canada mothers (with the exception of the mother in Jill J. Robinson’s excellent new novel, More in Anger) are largely absent from Canadian stories while father are often shadow figures.

And surprisingly, there is a need for a women’s fiction prize in Canada. Janice Zawerbny, Editorial Director of Thomas Allen Publishers, is starting one after going to a panel at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest and hearing the dismal stats from myself and Gillian Jerome who founded Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. I researched my stats so I would know what I was talking about instead of just shooting my mouth off as many panelists do at these festivals and Gillian, through CWILA, has been researching coverage of women’s writing in Canada for a while now. I expected to find much better results than I did because I believed, like many people in my community, that our women dominate our literature. While I still believe Canada may be the best country in the world to be a woman writer, I no longer agree with the public perception that women rule fiction.

The need for another Canadian prize has been hotly debated on my personal fb page. So as a footnote to those discussions, listen to what Kate Mosse, the founder of the Orange prize in the UK, has to say about how that prize has helped women’s writing. Here is Kate in her own words:

First, the Orange Prize has absolutely meant that the issue of how many books are reviewed by women etc is firmly in the spotlight precisely because of the Prize. Also, we plan everything around promoting the long list of 20 titles – each year, 2000 copies of each book are immediately bought and put into the UK library service; then the shortlist of 6, which are promoted as a group of six. Waterstones in the UK did a survey and confirmed that OPF promotion was the most successful of ALL promotions they did in terms of bringing new readers to the entire shortlist (better performing than their own promotions). So, it is acknowledged by publishers and trade alike in the UK as being precisely not ‘winner takes all’ in the months leading up to the ceremony. We have worked incredibly hard to achieve this and ALL authors have a significant sales boost.

Kate’s point about this UK award for women’s fiction not being a winner take all prize is a point well taken.

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