Twice the Whitbread jewels have been snatched from under Salman Rushdie's nose, and both times by former health-workers: Paul Sayer, a mental-health nurse, did it in 1988 with his first novel, The Comforts of Madness; and now Kate Atkinson, a former home-help, adds insult to Salman's injury with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
To those who complain that women have no place in the macho world of the Nineties British novel, one could argue that at least Pat Barker won the Booker with a novel about men and war; whereas Atkinson's book, dismayingly, is beyond doubt high-octane women's fiction. It concerns families, marriages, birth and death, all of it set above a pet shop in York. Nothing could be more intimate, provincial or riveting.
Behind the Scenes is like reading Margaret Forster on Vimto. It buzzes with peppery intelligence and unconventikonal good sense. The story of Ruby Lennox, born just in time to watch the Queen's coronation on her dad's new television, tells the story of several generations of Yorkshire women in her family, frustrated by bad marriages and bad luck.Atkinson writes with celestial cunning, and her meshing of Ruby's history with not only her mother's (the sour-faced Bunty) and with grandmothers and great-grandmothers is the real triumph of the book.
But women haven't always been this lucky. In the last ten years, most of the big literary prizes (and most desirable cheques - pounds 20,000 for the Booker, pounds 21,000 for the Whitbread) have gone to men. In the last ten years, female Booker winners have numbered only three - Penelope Lively in 1986, AS Byatt in 1990, Pat Barker last year - while the only distaff Whitbread laureate before Ms Atkinson was Joan Brady in 1993. In black and white terms, the boys have bagged pounds 308,000 to the girls' pounds 102,000.
So with the launch this week of the ''women only'' Orange Prize for Fiction - pounds 30,000 for the best English-language novel by a woman - the income prospects for literary ladies can only be looking up. Since the Orange Prize is female-centric, and will be judged by an all-women panel (this year's judges are Kate Mosse, Susan Hill and Val Hennessy) the announcement of the prize has met with a predictable bray of disapproval. The late Sir Kingsley Amis, on hearing of the prize last year, said if he were a woman he would not wish to win it. This week AS Byatt criticised the award for ''ghettoising'' women.
Perhaps the only danger is that we shall start to think there is a ghetto called ''women's literature'', rather than a concept of literature that transcends gender. Certainly women seem to have been under-represented in book prizes in the Nineties, but the reason for this may lie, not in the macho prejudice of juries but in the zeitgeist: in the caution of publishers, in the lack of will to write literary fiction, in the extraordinary drift toward warlike and violent themes. The Orange Prize may represent a clearing of the decks by women writers, a consideration of what fiction - by either sex - should be at the end of the century; but it's a revaluation that will need watching. The Orange awards will apparently be known as "Bessies". Kate Atkinson's fictional Mum was called "Bunty". We can live without female writing becoming the Bessie-Bunty strain of modern literature.Reuse content