'New Zadie Smith' on shortlist for Orange debut writers' prize

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The Independent Culture

A novelist who has been touted as the new Zadie Smith has been shortlisted for the inaugural Orange Award for New Writers, a spin-off from the established Orange Prize for fiction by female writers.

A novelist who has been touted as the new Zadie Smith has been shortlisted for the inaugural Orange Award for New Writers, a spin-off from the established Orange Prize for fiction by female writers.

Diana Evans, 33, has been nominated for the prize for her semi-autobiographical debut novel 26a, which many critics have compared to White Teeth, the best-selling debut novel by Smith.

The new award, which is open to first-time female authors, was designed to help emerging talent, and identify writers with originality, according to the judges. It carries a £10,000 prize.

The other books on the shortlist are Lucky Girls by Nell Freudenberger and How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, both American.

Ms Evans is a graduate of the University of East Anglia's creative writing course, has published short stories in a number of anthologies and worked as a journalist. But it is her debut novel that has brought her to the notice of the literary world.

Her book is set in Neasden, north London, in the 1980s among an eccentric mixed-race family who live at 26 Waifer Avenue with their identical twin daughters. The twins spend much of their time in their hideaway attic called 26a. The relationship between the twins, Georgia and Bessi, is explored, showing how they cope with child abuse, sex and jealousy. Their drunken white father, Aubrey, struggles to cope with his past, while their Nigerian mother, Ida, struggles with British cooking and talks aloud to her absent mother.

The book was favourably reviewed in The Independent on Sunday: "It shouldn't work - there's just too much drama overloading this otherwise familiar formula - but somehow Diana Evans pulls it off with a flourish. Evans's style is laid-back and chatty. She's obviously paid a lot of attention to the way families talk to each other, and she has a lovely sense of humour."

The novelist Kamila Shamsie, chair of the judges, said: "It really is a source of much cheer to see how vast the scope of new writing by women is. What binds these [shortlist] books together is potential, ambition and the sheer class of writing."

This new prize, the winner of which will be announced on 7 June, has led some literary critics and members of the publishing world to lament the rising number of book awards.

David Sexton, literary editor of the London Evening Standard, wrote earlier this year: "There are more literary prizes these days than there are compelling books to receive them".

About 260 literary prizes are handed out each year in the UK, including the Bird Book of the Year and the Bad Sex Prize, run by the Literary Review and awarded to the worst example of sex as described in a book.

At the other end of the scale there are the much respected prizes, such as the Man Booker, Whitbread and T S Eliot awards.

Martyn Goff, 81, administrator of the Man Booker Prize since its inception 37 years ago, said the proliferation of literary prizes had diminished them all.

"We have got to the stage where there are too many prizes, many of them don't worry me as the administrator of a prize myself, but there is a feeling it lessens all prizes by having so many.

"I was against the main Orange prize being set up 10 years ago, arguing women had always been shortlisted for the Booker and been judges. Some prizes, like the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, which I helped found, get so little publicity it makes you wonder what the point is."

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