Callil defends English fiction

THE chairman of this year's Booker Prize judges, Carmen Callil, will launch a forceful attack on the carping critics responsible for the "obsessive denigration of English fiction" at this year's awards dinner.

Ms Callil, who was born in Australia, will use the occasion at the Guildhall, London, on Tuesday to defend English writers and warn against the growing obsession with American writing.

"Obsessive denigration of English fiction is the dying chirrup of some sort of imperial misery," she says. "English novelists are no longer the greatest in the world, therefore they must be the worst.

"This is also tied up with an unhealthy obsession with American fiction, a sort of pistol-packing approach which ignores the many different kinds of novelists flourishing here." The founder of Virago Press and former head of publishers Chatto & Windus also attacks the form of political correctness which has so affected literary assessment in this country. "Abroad, particularly America, is good; here is bad. Guarded praise is the most one is permitted."

Ms Callil will warn guests at the Booker prize-giving dinner - one of the highlights of the literary world's calendar - that "the rules as to what is good are laid down by too few and by people of a particular kind, on too narrow a canvas."

The result, she says, is that "the sulphur of envy, particularly in the newspapers, wraps itself around writers' lives. Writers don't answer back because it is their business to write books."

This year's Booker shortlist includes two English writers, Beryl Bainbridge (for Every Man for Himself) and Graham Swift (Last Orders) plus a Canadian, Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace), a Scotswoman, Shena Mackay (The Orchard on Fire), an Irishman, Seamus Deane (Reading in the Dark) and an Indian, Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance).

Past English Booker winners include some of the best known names in modern literature - Iris Murdoch, William Golding and Kingsley Amis.

But there has been a remarkable array of talented writers from the Commonwealth - VS Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, Thomas Keneally, Ben Okri, and Michael Ondaatje - who have also been awarded the Booker Prize.