Today’s announcement of the Orange Prize long list got me thinking about the relevance of gender specific prizes and publications in the 21st Century. I realise these prizes and publications are supposed to counteract years of male domination in publishing, but looking back at a list of the Booker shortlists for the last thirty years there have been many shortlists where women writers dominated and plenty of female winners. Will there be a point when publications and prizes based on segregating writing by gender will not be necessary?

While googling about the female only prize, it was refreshing to read Sadie Jones’ thoughts on the matter, when shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2008. “I think there should be a literary prize for men. I have a son, and you hear a lot about boys not reading. Anything that adds interest or glamour for boys can only be good sense.” Yet here we are, two years later and such a prize, which certainly might help encourage more male reading, is conspicuous by its absence. I also wasn’t aware until today that AS Byatt has forbidden her publisher to submit her novels, calling the prize sexist and unnecessary.

As an ex-English teacher, seeing so many female only writers’ organisations and publications (both print and electronic formats) as well as prizes like the Orange award, does highlight the fact that there is little in place to encourage male readers or writers, something schools struggle with daily. I also wonder how long it would take for a male only prize to come under fire for doing exactly the same thing as the well respected Orange Prize. A male only writing journal would almost certainly face the same criticism.

My feeling on the issue is that good writing is good writing and segregating work by gender (or sexuality or race – but that’s a whole other post) is insulting to readers. Women writers such as Toni Morrison, Ali Smith, Maggie Gee, Tania Hershman and, my absolute favourite author at the moment, Amy Hempel all sit on my bookshelf, alongside a host of other writers, both male and female. I don’t ever really consider the sex of the author when choosing a book. I’m more concerned whether the story/collection sounds like it has something interesting to say or, when browsing, if the opening grabs my attention. If the writing is working, the author should be invisible, in which case what does gender matter?

I know a good number of women writers and readers check in on this blog from time to time and I’d be interested to hear your views on the subject. Is the Orange Prize’s mandate out of date? Does the gender of an author really matter? Is this effort to redress past imbalances in the publishing world unnecessary in 2010?