Boyd Tonkin: Those scary, monstrous feminazis - they still dare to run a book prize


A lot of Pinot Grigio has passed under the bridge since, at a small-scale and low-key event, I saw Helen Dunmore receive the inaugural Orange Prize for fiction in 1996. Dunmore, who won for the outstanding A Spell of Winter, goes from strength to strength.

Meanwhile, the competition - from next year, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction – still has to contend with just the same lame and dreary sniping that attended its birth. This week, the critics have a fresh axe to grind beyond the kneejerk objections to a single-sex award. Pundits who don't believe that a gender-limited prize should exist at all now recoil in mock-indignation to find it sponsored by a sweet liqueur often enjoyed by the kind of young woman of whom the tweedily pompous male scourges of "political correctness" deeply disapprove.

Standing as I do in an especially well-appointed glass house, I'm in no position to chuck stones. For the past dozen years, the awards party for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has gone with an effervescent swing thanks to much-valued support in kind from Champagne Taittinger. Long may it continue. Strange, though, how no one has ever denounced this most welcome measure of sponsorship. Could it have anything to do with the identity of the brand? Mixologist! Top up my Baileys with a dash of overproof and cask-aged English snobbery.

At the business end of the contest, the judges of the Women's Prize for Fiction 2013 have made a strong and bold decision in giving the gong to AM Homes for May We Be Forgiven: her twisted, scabrous but, in the end, deeply compassionate tragi-comedy of American family values. In the Independent's review of the novel, Lisa Gee wrote that "The subject could have made for something depressingly sentimental, claustrophobic, bitter; but this is a huge-hearted expansive book, simultaneously nightmare-black and extremely funny." I'll raise a glass to the choice, which - incidentally - gives a timely fillip to the Granta imprint in the wake of the company's recent turbulence.

More generally, diehard objectors to the Women's Prize display a curious blind spot. Usually to be found on the right of the political spectrum, sworn foes of state monopolies and public institutions, they nonetheless treat literary awards as some sort of nationalised industry. The Women's Prize, like many other such honours, embodies private initiative at its most benign. It enjoys no official status. It takes up no scarce common resources. It displaces or suppresses nothing else. It does not in any sense constitute what the economists call a "positional good": ie, if A occupies it, then B or C can't. No power sets a limit to the number or nature of literary prizes. Yet people otherwise of a free-market persuasion somehow manage to express outrage that this pure fruit of enterprise should dare to operate at all.

If the complainants wish to found a men-only book prize, they are quite at liberty to do so. Indeed, in certain circumstances I would warmly back such a venture. Look at the pattern of children's reading, and you find that once-keen boys often retreat from books - never to return - at an impressionable age. You might even argue that the entire domain of children's literature - its advocates, its pressure-groups, its ethos - would benefit from a stronger male presence.

I can easily imagine a worthwhile prize for books by male authors, aimed at older boys and younger teens, that would justify its role and its restrictions. But that might entail some hard thinking about what pre-teen and teenage boys - who could do with a lot more positive feedback from our culture as a whole - really need. Far easier to take a routine swipe at the scary, monstrous feminazis and their frightful book prize. Honestly, chaps: do get a grip.

At last, Boris dumps Murdoch – for the French!

A result! This column has repeatedly questioned the propriety of London mayor Boris Johnson having a book contract with Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins while he oversees the Met – some of whose officers are under investigation for alleged improper deals with Murdoch journalists. Now it turns out that Johnson's next book, The Churchill Factor, will be published not by Murdoch but by Hachette-owned Hodder & Stoughton. So the comedy Francophobe has signed up with a French outfit instead. Merde alors!

Race in fiction: not black-and-white!

After her popular appointment as next Children's Laureate, Malorie Blackman raised the issue of non-white characters and their frequent invisibility in children's writing. True, fiction for young readers did take time to catch up with the changing face of Britain. But let's honour the exceptions: the entire output of Barefoot Books, for example.

Among writers, much-loved Shirley Hughes (of Alfie fame) always makes sure that her illustrated stories reflect kids' realities today. In adult fiction, though, the whole question of "recognising" oneself will – and should - change. Read, say, Zadie Smith's NW and you'll see how for her youngsters so-called "race" can take a back seat to a host of local identities and affinities. No, it doesn't disappear; but it's one factor among many. Good writers, for children or adults, will need to grasp the new pluralities as well as the old polarities.