Violence and sleaze keep out romance

Betty Trask Prize: Tale of serial killer wins award for a first novel as judges condemn 'depraved' and 'squalid' prose of entries
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The Independent Online
What a wonderful, gleeful irony! On Wednesday, one of the judges of the Betty Trask prize for romance attacks the violent, squalid and explicit nature of the books which were entered. Last night, the winner is announced: John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure, about a serial killer who has murdered his entire family.

It is a gourmet's guide to murder, admittedly in elegant prose. But it contains no romance, unless you count the relationship between the honeymooners whom the narrator kills. The award of the pounds 8,000 first prize to Lanchester, deputy editor of the London Review of Books, must have been crushing for Graham Lord, the judge who so criticised entries for the pounds 25,000 prize endowed by Betty Trask for first novels "of a romantic or traditional nature". It was an equal blow for Charlotte Bingham, the novelist who chaired the judging. "At least 50 per cent of entries submitted ... were too appalling to repeat. Some of them were absolutely depraved. It is such an awful waste of trees," she said.

Mr Lord's attack was the most interesting, for he is a man around whom fragrance seems irresistibly to play. "Women novelists nowadays are increasingly writing books that are astonishingly sleazy, foul-mouthed and violent," the novelist railed in the Daily Mail.

Women such as Tania Glyde, who took Mr Lord's personal prize for gratuitous sleaze. "Tania Glyde's Clever Girl manages to mention in the first few pages a dog's sexual excitement, dildos, various body fluids, child abuse, loveless sex, lavatory paper and all the usual four-letter words," he warned, "not to mention a girl's irresistible lust for a thick, Habitat pottery lamp ... "

What worries Mr Lord is precisely why females are turning to violence. "Once it was women who softened and civilised their men and children," he observed. But now he accuses young women of "abandoning their femininity and embracing yobbishness".

And so they are producing coarse, nasty books. Deborah Bosley's Let Me Count The Ways is the "utterly unromantic story of a girl whose homosexual husband has Aids"; Louise Doughty's Crazy Paving is "awash with foul dialogue, graphic descriptions of masturbation, menstruation and vomiting".

Mr Lord has a point. Young women are writing about sex and violence in a way they did not before. But that is not to say they used to ignore realities of life completely. The fashion for Gothic novels from the end of the 18th century was led by Mrs Radcliffe and Mary Shelley and they were packed with death and destruction.

The point of Mr Lord's tirade should not have been whether women have started to write about the things they have always done (masturbation, menstruation, sex) but whether they are doing it well. The answer has to be that, on the whole, they are not. There is little point describing sex and violence unless this is central to the plot, or the very point being made. But many others in the Brutalist mould are simply not well characterised, plotted or written. True, millions of novels have managed to be both good and non-sexually explicit. But times change. And as long as most women writers avoid the temptation of the pointless orgasm, we should not worry too much about the odd Habitat lamp.

t Runners-up for the Trask award were: Meera Syal for Anita and Me, Rhidian Brook for The Testimony of Taliesin Jones, and Louis Caron Buss for The Luxury of Exile.