When Lisa Jardine complained in 1997 that fiction written by British women tended to be smug, parochial and narrow-minded I reacted with a grin of recognition. She got a lot of flak for her views, but you could quite easily see why chomping through a pile of fiction for the Orange Prize had brought on her fit of anger. Many other readers have been struggling with the same frustrations for years and years, and asking themselves when things were ever going to change.
Sure, many of the best women writers of previous generations were those who confined themselves to an apparently small canvas and mapped the surging currents of desire and anger that lie within the most parochial milieus. In doing that they were being true to their social and emotional reality and transmuting it into something as fierce and pressing as any tale of voyages and battlefields.
But now that the field where women move every day had expanded way beyond Elizabeth Bennett's or Clarissa Dalloway's drawing rooms, it just seemed wilfully unambitious of so many female writers in Britain to keep their characters in such tiny boxes, and that lack of ambition was constantly reflected in their language and themes.
Now and again a British woman writer would engage with the world around her in language that rose above mere journalese. But why were those excursions into the vibrant air of real literature so rare? Where were the young British women who were daring to pick up the torch carried by Doris Lessing and Angela Carter in the Sixties and Seventies?
Instead of the ambition, the power, the engagement that readers longed for, for too many years we have been fobbed off with fiction that seemed to bear no relation to the changing lives and expectations of ordinary women.
Instead, we got what you might call Women's Hour fiction, nicely turned little books about family secrets in a dismal middle England, in which the sentences plod after each other with all the rising excitement of a Delia Smith recipe. Or we got those skimpy pretensions to literature in which the young heroines floated like sleepwalkers through a minor breakdown or their parents' divorce, their clothes described in detail, their characters left blank. Against that pallid background it was rather a relief when Bridget Jones started staggering drunkenly up the bestseller lists. At least she didn't have the polite, musty air of the would-be literary stars.
But, when the longlist for this year's Orange Prize was published last week, it bore witness to a real shift in British women's writing, a shift which has been gathering strength over the last couple of years. The Orange Prize, unlike the Booker, includes North American writers, and in previous years the Americans have shown up the British embarrassingly.
When you've got Toni Morrison or Annie Proulx on the list, it is hard to focus properly on the well-behaved, forgettable offerings of the British writers. But this year, for once, the American women aren't outgunning the rest, and there are writers on the longlist who truly are good enough to restore one's faith in the force of women writing about Britain and from Britain. Because here are women who are engaging fiercely with the world around them, with their futures and their pasts.
It is great to see Zadie Smith at the centre of the list. When was the last time that you read a novel by a young British woman and heard the sounds of real London streets rushing like wind through the text? Sometimes you feel, reading her great big blast of a novel, White Teeth, that Smith has become so entranced by her linguistic flair that she has rather lost sight of the tale she is telling. But even that look-at-me wordiness is endearing.
Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis have been doing it for years, getting so worked up over their own cleverness that they begin to sound half-drunk on words. And this young woman can outclass the old boys in showmanship, as she switches from one precisely observed torrent of language to the next, from Caribbean English, to Bengali English, to middle-class white English.
Investigating the clashing cultural currents that lie behind the neat facades of British life, that has to be one of the prime aims of literature now. If women couldn't rise to that challenge, then it looked as though modern fiction was coming adrift from the experiences that should feed it and into which it should pour its revelations. But although Zadie Smith is the best of the women who take on these contemporary clashes, there are others who are shining a light on immigrant experience through their fiction. One of the novels that appears on the Orange longlist, The Translator, is by Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese woman who now lives in Aberdeen. She may not have anything like the bravura talent of Smith, but she pulls you into her world as she refracts British life, its smells and sounds, its advertisements and turns of phrase, through the observant eyes of her devoutly Muslim, Sudanese narrator.
Even when women decide to draw their geographical boundaries more closely than writers such as Zadie Smith or Leila Aboulela, they are often becoming more courageous in exploring experiences that are traditionally elbowed aside by mainstream British fiction. Of course middle-class life has its place in fiction, but if the women who are getting squashed in our unequal society don't find their fictional voices, a wellspring of energy will be lost.
Now interesting voices are rising from less privileged parts of the country. Laura Hird's first novel, Born Free, also appears on the Orange longlist, and although her prose doesn't have the power of many of the other listed writers, she paints a hard, memorable picture of a violent family living on the edge in Edinburgh.
One of the most visible strands in women's writing recently has been the love of writing about the past. But too often that has looked like an escape from the pressures and contradictions of contemporary consciousness into a prettier setting and more romantic plots: a neat parochialism in 17th-century dresses. That doesn't have to be the case. Historical fiction can explore modern consciousness, too, by exploring how we came to stand where we stand and be who we are.
The great strength of Linda Grant's new novel, When I Lived in Modern Times, which also appears on the Orange longlist, is that for her history is not a costume drama, it is a living reality. Her novel maps a woman's personal struggle for self-fulfilment on to a historical struggle - the violent fight to found the state of Israel. Yes, Grant reconstructs past costumes and cities with a careful touch. But this historical landscape is not a closed one, it resonates with unassuaged desires - the desire for authentic femininity, for authentic national identity - that still propel us today.
It may be that all these new or newish voices are mere shooting stars, about to fizzle out, and that the great tide of pallid, pointless fictional froth will overwhelm us again. Perhaps. But it really seems that Lisa Jardine's complaint is being laid to rest now. Some of these writers are recharging the language that they work with and reconnecting with some of the most urgent questions of our times. That bodes well. There are those among this generation of women writers who are finding ways to write novels that can be true to our harsh, fragmentary culture and still purvey the pleasures of fiction. I don't know whether the future is orange or black or brown or white, but it is looking bright from here.Reuse content