A week in books

When the Independent ran an extract from Anne Michaels's mesmerising first novel, some readers who had loved its incandescent prose but overlooked the small print rang in to check the book's details. As I recall, men and women 'phoned in equal numbers - a trivial point, you might assume. Well, on Wednesday, Fugitive Pieces mocked its long odds as a 6-1 outsider to win Michaels the second Orange Prize for fiction by women. And Professor Lisa Jardine, who chaired the judging panel for the pounds 30,000 award, prefaced this supremely just decision with a broadside against male critics who refuse to rate novels from female authors. "Not only do men tend not to read the novels women read," she thundered. "They don't seem to think it matters either - not even if they consider themselves to be discerning readers of the modern novel".

She cited Christina Stead as a prime example of a major figure spurned by the cock-eyed tastes of the male literati. Up to a point. When James Wood used to sermonise from his pulpit as the Guardian's critic-in-chief, scarcely a week would pass without some scornful comparison between the wretched work under review and - the unrivalled greatness of Christina Stead. The general case, however, remains strangely true. Women will happily read the most testosterone-fuelled of writers. Terry Pratchett has a horde of female fans; as does Iain Banks; as does Irvine Welsh.

The reverse - to male readers' loss - doesn't yet apply. One reason for this imbalance may lie in feminist rhetoric iself. At least in the grim, sectarian Seventies, many of its advocates planted huge "Men: keep off" signs around the flourishing terrain of women's fiction. Yet literature is no one's private ground; literature is common ground - as Virginia Woolf once wrote. Ironically, one way to haul male readers out of the self-inflicted literary purdah that rightly bothers Lisa Jardine might be to invite more open-minded male critics to review novels by women. (It was Geoff Dyer who, in these pages, hailed Fugitive Pieces as "an unprecedented imaginative creation".)

One other aspect of Anne Michaels's triumph deserves attention. For the second time - after Helen Dunmore's victory - the Orange Prize has gone to a distinguished poet-turned-novelist. Margaret Atwood - also a poet - contended on the shortlist, while one of this spring's boldest novels (Impossible Saints) came from another twin-track creator, Michele Roberts. At the moment, more women than men seem to manage high achievement in both verse and prose. But literature exists to upend generalities - including that one. John Fuller - a relative latecomer to fiction - belongs in this amphibious company; and you can read about his mysterious new novel over the page.

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