Those who chair the jury on book prize panels have to contend with the usual discomforts of the job: too many books, eye strain, a piffling salary for months of intensive reading, and refereeing clashes between other jurors.
When the television producer, Daisy Goodwin, agreed to chair this year’s Orange Prize for women’s fiction, she was unprepared for a new problem: the barrage of “misery literature” that came her way.
So many of the 129 books she waded through to select a longlist dealt with the subjects of bereavement, child abuse and rape that, she said yesterday, “I felt like a social worker by the end of it.”
She added: “A lot of them started with a rape. There was child abuse, there was even one anal rape with needles.”
Speaking to The Independent, Ms Goodwin said the trend to this year’s novels by women, judging by the material submitted for consideration for the Orange Prize longlist, was a very depressing tendency towards humourless, dismal stories. What was more, she said, some of these novels suffered from the curse of the bookclub – “a story with an issue at its heart rather than a book you can’t put down”.
“There was very little wit, and no jokes. If I read another sensitive account of a woman coming to terms with bereavement, I was going to slit my wrists.
“The misery memoir has transformed into misery literature. There were a large number of books that started with a rape, enough to make me think ‘Enough’. Call me old fashioned but I like a bit of foreplay in my reading... I turned my face against them.”
Some of these wrenching reads did eventually make it onto the longlist because they were well-written, she added, but many had been jettisoned by her.
Goodwin, who is herself currently writing a novel, was critical of publishers who had evidently championed books of such a grim nature. “Having an issue [at the heart of a novel] is not enough. The pleasure of reading counts for something,” she said. “I don’t think editors think enough about this pleasure [when they publish a book]. The reader gets forgotten, and the absorption and pleasure of reading.”
She also reflected on the dearth of state-of-the-nation novels by women published over the past year. “There’s not that many contemporary London novels out there, which surprised me.”
Goodwin commended the diversity of books on the longlist, including Roopa Farooki’s “humane and funny novel” about an autistic teenager, The Way Things Look to Me, which she said was, in spite of its serious subject matter, a “pleasure to read”, as well as Amy Sackville’s “beautifully written” The Stillpoint, in which the central character, Julia, tries to sort her explorer great-uncle’s archive while struggling with depression and a sense of foreboding about her marriage. She also liked The Very Thought of You, by Rosie Alison, and praised historical novels such as Hilary Mantel’s Booker winner Wolf Hall, and Maria McCann’s The Wilding, which was set in the 17th century. “These are absorbing historical novels that don’t knock you over the head with research,” she said.
Andrea Levy, who has previously won the Orange Prize for Small Island, was longlisted for her recent novel The Long Song, while the American writers Lorrie Moore and Barbara Kingsolver both appeared on the longlist of 20 books. There were seven first-time novelists chosen, and 13 British writers.
Quality fiction that features misery at its centre includes the longlisted MJ Hyland’s This is How, in which the lead character is dumped by his fiancée, drops out of university and ends up in prison.
Last October, Annie Proulx’s collection Fine Just the Way It Is supplied an unmitigated blast of pessimism, with such stories as “Tits Up in a Ditch” about an unhappy childhood and casualties from Iraq. Eva Hornung’s novel Dogboy, published last April, was set in contemporary Moscow and dealt with homelessness – one lead character is a starving, abandoned four-year-old boy who wanders the streets and finds comfort in suckling the teat of a mongrel stray. One grim scene features the boy capturing and eating a rat. Lionel Shriver’s latest book, So Much for That, explores themes of illness, death, shattered dreams and emotional cruelty, but it does, for all its misery, have an uplifting ending.