Women's literature: The next chapter

We are entering a golden age of British women's writing, as shown by this week's Orange Prize long-list, writes Louise Jury. The nominees are assessed by The Independent's literary editor Boyd Tonkin
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The Independent Culture

When the long-list for the Orange Prize for women's fiction was announced this week, it was acclaimed one of the strongest in its history. And behind the list of heavyweight contenders from around the world lies a growing recognition for a new breed of British women writers.

In contrast with some years, an author from the UK stands an almost 50-50 chance of victory come the prizegiving ceremony in June. Ten years ago, it was arguably big hitters from North America who were dominant, today a plethora of sassy and original authors from the A of Ali Smith to the Z of Zadie, may be heralding a golden age of writing by women in Britain.

There have always been female literary heavyweights in the UK, of course, from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf then Murdoch, Drabble and Byatt.

But in a world where women still face economic disadvantage at many turns, it is, ironically, the harsh financial realities of 21st century publishing that are contributing to the breakthrough of writers such as Monica Ali, of Brick Lane fame, and much-touted newcomers such as the Orange-recognised author Naomi Alderman.

Publishers have been forced to understand two things. Women writers can deliver big returns. And it is women readers, not least in the proliferating numbers of overwhelmingly female book clubs, who are the driving force of fiction buying.

"I definitely think there are two names who are responsible for a real sea-change - Zadie Smith and Monica Ali," says Louise Doughty, an author whose fifth novel, Stone Cradle, will be published in May. " Everyone's forgotten it now but I remember when Zadie Smith first got her big six-figure advance as a student. Lots of people in publishing were saying, 'How ridiculous, they're not going to get their money back on that, it's all hype.' Boy, how wrong they were.

"She went mega and Monica Ali the same. Women authors are not just interesting, they're making publishers money.

"Publishers have realised that new women writers are really where it's at it right now. They're prepared to offer huge advances because everyone wants the new Zadie Smith. I can't think offhand of a young male writer who has made a comparable splash."

And it was not just that writers such as Zadie Smith were pleasing on the eye, either, in case anyone dared wonder. "The public won't be fooled. [The model] Naomi Campbell's novel, Swan, was a total flop. Being attractive is an advantage but it can't make up for a bad novel," Doughty says.

The second key factor is the woman reader. Although it has been long acknowledged that women buy more fiction than men, the rise of the reading group - including Richard and Judy's on daytime television - has reinforced the point.

"Publishers are sitting up and noticing that women are the main audience for literary fiction. They are the ones who are buying it twice as much as men," according to Debbie Taylor, editor of Mslexia magazine for women writers, which has 10,000 subscribers.

And this recognition may be helping overturn a traditional prejudice against women writers, which extends even so far as the review pages, where more books by men are reviewed and they are reviewed dominantly by men.

"Men simply don't like women's writers," Taylor says. "When men buy fiction they won't go near women's fiction." But with more women becoming publishing editors and newspaper literary editors, some of the hurdles women writers face are being removed. "It's not that they prefer books by women but situations that were actively hostile to women in the past aren't any more," she says. "When you don't hold women back, they bounce!"

Similarly, it is business reasons that may explain the higher profile of British writers in the shops and on prize shortlists. Hannah Griffiths, the fiction editor for Faber, says: "It's much harder to take on and create a splash massive debut with an author that isn't here. If you take on an American writer, they come the week of publication and no one has met them ... With so much of what's in the shops now, you're trying to position the writer a year before the publication date. That's one big practical thing that has changed in the last 10 years."

Griffiths adds: "Women's fiction 10 years ago was dominated by that North American idiom - people like Barbara Kingsolver - but it isn't dominant now. You can't underestimate the doors Zadie Smith opened up for British writers."

Curiously, one final factor may be the importance of the famed creative writing course at the University of East Anglia as a breeding ground for new talent. Its students face fierce, but egalitarian, competition to win a place under the tutelage of writers such as Michele Roberts and Jill Dawson (who is interviewed in The Independent on Friday). Recent graduates include Diana Evans, who won the Orange Prize for new writers with 26a last year, and Susan Fletcher, who was nominated for the Whitbread First Novel Prize last year.

Evans believes the "UEA stamp" is definitely an advantage in getting a new writer on the desks of agents and consequently editors.

"The fact that you've been through what is an increasingly competitive selection process to get on the course means that the level of the work is expected to be of a certain rank," she says, adding sagely: "But of course, there are only a handful of writers who come off these courses who actually get published."

John Sutherland, last year's Man Booker Prize chairman, will not be drawn on whether any of the new crop of stars is set to rival the male heavyweights of contemporary publishing - the likes of Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. But he describes the current situation as "incredibly uplifting". "The health of fiction is when you get variety and I don't think I've ever seen a more various field for fiction, whether gender neutral or gender specific. The pasture is blooming."

Hannah Griffiths says: "You couldn't get finer prose styles and finer minds" than writers such as Maggie O'Farrell, Rachel Cusk or Zadie herself. "They are fabulous women writing fabulous novels."

Louise Doughty, who in addition to her own writing is chairing the Orange Prize for new writers, says she has been stunned by the standard of the work under consideration. "It is incredibly high," she says.

And Rodney Troubridge, fiction buyer for Waterstone's, is happy to call it a golden age and singles out Sarah Waters, author of Fingersmith and now The Night Watch, as one of its stars.

"In the past, there were probably a few really formidable women writers - in the days of Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt - but now there's much greater diversity. There are lots and lots of people who have the potential to be those formidable figures in the future."

Ali Smith, whose much-fêted novel The Accidental has been longlisted for the Orange, believes the credit for the breakthrough lies in the pioneering work of the Women's Press and Virago in publishing new works and neglected classics by female writers. They promoted writers such as Angela Carter and Maureen Duffy whose influence, she believes, is clearly detectable today.

"At the time I wouldn't have thought I was influenced by [them] but the idea that the canon [of great writers] was alterable, that there was an alternative canon in the first place and that it was blown open by these companies was important."

But she warns the gains may not be permanent and vigilance is required. "The fruits [of that progress] are something we have to be careful not to lose."

She and Zadie Smith were two women on a Man Booker shortlist of six last year, she notes. The prize had ignored writers such as Leila Aboulela whose Minaret was "a cracking book" which well deserves its place on the new Orange long-list.

She thinks a point about inequality made by the American author Joyce Carol Oates 18 years ago remains salient. "The irony is that while there are 'women writers' there have never been 'men writers'," Oates wrote. The category of "men writers" was "a class without specimens" . A woman might rail against such ghettoisation, Oates added, "until the woman writer realises the ghetto is a place in which to live".

Ali Smith believes that point is one answer to those few voices who still object to a writing prize open only to women.

"This year's Orange long-list is tremendously strong and last year's found lots of people who were writing the most amazing books that people wouldn't have found without the prize," she says. "Books by women carry on getting lost. We still need this kind of positive discrimination."

For sometimes a writer's greatness is simply a matter of perspective. " The critic of the opposite sex will be genuinely puzzled and surprised by an attempt to alter the current scale of values, and will see in it not merely a difference of view, but a view that is weak, or trivial, or sentimental, because it differs from their own," Virginia Woolf wrote more than 70 years ago.

Ali Smith is probably not the only one to believe that still holds true today.

On the Orange Prize long-list

Leila Aboulela

One of the few Muslim women writers in Britain to present their faith as a living force rather than discarded history, she also makes rich use of the tensions and ironies thrown up by her Anglo-Sudanese background. Now living in Dubai and Aberdeen, she wrote the Orange Prize long-listed The Translator. In Minaret, Aboulela's heroine is drawn back into the shelter of Islam after the alienation of London life.

Naomi Alderman

Alderman's debut, Disobedience,shows religion has returned as a subject for serious exploration forwomen writers. Based in an Orthodox Jewish community in north London (such as the one in which the author was raised), it dramatises the impact of an outspoken woman on a congregation reeling from the loss of its rabbi. Alderman is a graduate of the MA creative writing course at the University of East Anglia.

Jill Dawson

Another writer with a UEA connection - though as teacher rather than student - Jill Dawson specialises in eerie, sinister situations that test the limits of knowledge and control. Fred & Edie revisted the secrets of a true-crime scandal of the 1920s, while Wild Boy reinvented the historical story of a child who grew in the French woods without human contact. In Watch me Disappear, the troubled scientist-narrator flashes back to the vanishing of her best schoolfriend in a plot that explores contemporary nightmares and panics about children.

Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory's well-researched and strongly plotted historical sagas have won her a fervent fan-base. Unlike writers of earlier bodice-rippers, she mingles elements of romance with lashings of gritty realism and political intrigue. In The Constant Princess, she recreates the youth and rescues the reputation of Catherine of Aragon, the woman spurned and slandered first by Henry VIII, then by historians.

Ali Smith

Although much admired by critics and prize judges, Ali Smith's playful and inventive takes on the normal conventions of fiction had not really moved into the commercial mainstream until The Accidental - shortlisted for the Man Booker, and winner of the Whitbread novel award. In a plot that recalls the Pasolini film Theorem, a young woman brings havoc to a smug but splintered family in their Norfolk farmhouse.

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith followed up White Teeth and The Autograph Man with On Beauty, both a campus satire and a homage to the humanistic art of E M Forster. It puts rival academic clans at eath other's throats, and into each other's beds. Ambiguities of race and class continue to delight and perplex Smith, whose talent for trend-surfing humour and generous approach to character bound from strength to strength.

Helen Dunmore

Winner of the inaugural Orange Prize in 1996, the multi-faceted Helen Dunmore (novelist, poet, children's writer, Russian specialist) broadened her audience with a much-loved novel of winter in wartime Leningrad, The Siege. House of Orphans returns to the snowbound regions she evokes so well: Finland, this time, as nationalist movements conspire against the Tsarist empire.

Hilary Mantel

One of the most consistently acclaimed of British novelists, Hilary Mantel has (until now) never found prize success to match her reputation. Beyond Black showcases all her singular and unsettling gifts. Part social satire, part emotional journey, part supernatural puzzle, it follows the path of a medium and her sidekick around suburban Britain in the dark heart of the Thatcher era.

Sarah Waters

Her popularity swollen by TV adaptation, Sarah Waters commands a vast audience for her nail-biting tales of sex, secrecy and exploitation in Victorian times. The Night Watch changes the setting to the Second World War years of loss and longing in blacked-out London, but familiar themes emerge - same-sex love, networks of hidden connections. The story is told in reverse, with outcomes leading to murky origins.