Suzi Feay: At The Sharp End

'Shockingly, the shortlist says there are no women writers in the world this year who are up to scratch'
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The Independent Online

I hate having to do this, but I'm going to eat my words. A few weeks ago, I wrote - oh hell, might as well just get on with it. "Do" (gulp) "we" (oh yuck) "really need the" (eugh, this is going down like cold sick) "Orange Broadband Prize for fiction any more?" Phew!

I was being a little mischievous in questioning the bona fides of the controversial "women only" book prize. So conflicted are we about it that even the chairman of the judges, Muriel Gray, felt it necessary to attack the majority of women's fiction as safe, domestic and dull even as she announced the longlist.

But it did seem a good sign that in the running there was a Man Booker winner (Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss), a Whitbread - sorry, Costa - Book of the Year winner (Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves) and one of the Man Booker shortlistees, MJ Hyland's Carry Me Down. The case for a women-only prize suddenly looked shaky. It will be a great day when the Orange is no longer needed because women writers are quite routinely Nobelled, Bookered and Costa'd. But of course, I spoke too soon.

Then came the shortlist announcement of the International Impac Dublin Literary Award (the what? We'll get on to that). Eight novels are on the list. Three are by big names: Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie (winner of the Booker of Bookers) and Nobel laureate JM Coetzee. Then there's Sebastian Barry, an Irish writer shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2005. There's the gritty American giant Cormac McCarthy, the Norwegian Per Petterson and the young Turk, Jonathan "Everything is Illuminated" Safran Foer. The dark horse is the youthful British writer Peter Hobbs.

Not one woman. To consider what this means, we have to look at the Impac Prize itself. It was set up in 1994 (the first prize was awarded in 1996). There was an inevitable bias towards the English language, but foreign language books were eligible in translation. The prize is therefore global.

Entries are nominated by librarians around the world, which arguably gives the prize a rather conservative tone, as well as an inevitable time lapse, which I think is why this generously endowed prize (the biggest for a single work of fiction) doesn't get more publicity. Quite simply, the books seem old - Barnes is up for it with Arthur & George, Rushdie with Shalimar the Clown.

One thing this shortlist tells us, then, is that there are no female writers in the world this year who are up to scratch. (And only one foreigner.) More shockingly, all the books appear to have been written, not just by men, but from a distinctively male viewpoint. Arthur & George is set in the milieu of Arthur Conan Doyle, where women are strange creatures, don't you know, Watson? Extremely Long and Insufferably Cute - sorry, I mean Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is 9/11 seen through the eyes of a precocious boy who loses his father in the atrocity (a more cloying, phony narrative it would be hard to imagine). McCarthy isn't exactly known for his sensitive, feminine side; A Long Long Way is about a young man caught up in the Irish Civil War and the Second World War. Slow Man is narrated by the male victim of a car accident, The Short Day Dying by a Victorian clergyman; the Petterson deals with an elderly Norwegian's memories of childhood.

I contacted the Impac award office in Dublin to see if the judges would care to enlighten me about their choices. Impac's spokeswoman declined to rouse them, but wrote to me: "I would say, however, that three out of the five voting judges are women writers."

Astonishingly, one is Carmen Callil. No one has done more than Callil to promote writing by women. She founded Virago Press and is a publishing legend. But it looks like the headline should read, "Women writers just not good enough, claim women".

I imagine the judges would have responded along the lines of: "We didn't even think about the authors' gender - we just picked the best books." As though picking "the best" was an objective judgement made in a cultural vacuum. I've judged a few literary prizes, and at some stage in proceedings there always comes a point when we ask: "What message are we sending out here?" Impac has shown how woefully out of touch it is. Here are some words I don't think I'll be eating any time soon: do we really need the International Impac Dublin Literary Award?

****

I was amused to see another feminist giant fall off her pedestal this week. Professor Germaine Greer felt moved to comment on a claim that Frankenstein was really written by Mary Shelley's husband. Her argument seemed to be; of course the naive 18-year-old had written it, because it was so inept.

She rather spoiled her argument by referring to the poet as Sir Percy Shelley throughout, which would be a howler in an undergraduate, never mind a professor of English literature. The legacy of the Romantics might have been rather different if, instead of haring pennilessly around Europe with pretty young women, writing firebrand revolutionary poetry, he had inherited a fortune and Field Place in Sussex and become an MP. (Political history, it seems safe to say, would have been rather livelier.)

No one could ever call Frankenstein a dull, domestic drama, even though it is rooted in Mary's loss of a baby and an eerie dream that it had come to life again. But guess what? Despite its continuing influence on popular culture, according to Greer, it's "not a good, let alone a great novel". Hey, if you're going to slag off profound, unsettling and prescient novels by women, make sure you get another woman to do it.

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