The Diary: This is how the real stories are missed

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My carefully prepared schedule for a busy week was shot to pieces by the controversy surrounding the announcement of the shortlist for this year's Orange Prize for Fiction. It is an award for excellence in an international arena, women's fiction. The fact that there happen to be five North American authors and one British should be of little more than passing interest.

Last Sunday, however, I was interviewed by journalists from the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph, with extraordinary results. Expecting to read considered articles on the arts pages, on Monday I heard an announcement on the radio that Professor Lola Young had claimed that British women writers were "piddling and parochial". Shock, horror! The Today programme asked for a live on-air response to the furore I'd apparently caused. "Piddling" is not a word I use, so I assumed it was not a quotation but a misheard term, or something made up to cause mischief.

I was disappointed that the media fixated on the question of Britain's national literary reputation, as it distracted people from an informed discussion about the six wonderful books on the shortlist. The judges found it extremely difficult to choose six titles from the 20 we had long- listed because the standard was so high.

What qualities mark a novel as excellent? We might include such characteristics as the author's ability to create a world in which the reader becomes totally immersed; to provide fresh insights into familiar issues and problems, or to explore new predicaments; to present us with original characterisations, plots and settings; to offer us intellectual and emotional challenges and to do so stylishly, and so on. All of our six titles meet those criteria.

Re-reading the short-listed entries, I am struck by a number of compelling themes and motifs which recur, rather than any pattern relating to national boundaries. A number of the novels deal with revelatory journeys which are part of a process of healing and reconciliation, the travel through time and space enabling the protagonists to deal with feelings of loss and abandonment: both The Leper's Companions by Julia Blackburn and Visible Worlds by Marilyn Bowering engage with these ideas in their different ways. Toni Morrison's Paradise and Suzanne Berne's A Crime in the Neighbourhood both start by focusing on a violent crime, but each invites the reader to meditate on the nature of wrongdoing, the motivation for causing hurt and pain, and the question of community responsibility. Growing up in a context where adults' dreams and aspirations are unfulfilled because aspects of reality are denied is a source of painful discoveries for the wife and daughters at the centre of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Disappointed ambition is dealt with compellingly by Jane Hamilton in The Short History of a Prince.

I suppose we shouldn't have been surprised by the nature of the fuss. But one of the more interesting features of this media event is that the controversy associated with the prize has shifted from an attack on the validity of a prize set up by and for women, to an issue of national cultural pride! When I see all the hard work of my fellow judges reduced to an issue of "USA versus UK" women writers, I despair. Still, it's important to keep things in perspective. There are plenty of other things going on in the world about which to lose heart.

AMONG all the e-mails about the Orange Prize (including, thankfully, some comments on the novels themselves) there have been a number from colleagues expressing views on the Kosovo crisis. One helpful message included the text of a paper by the leading Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Zizek which was published on the web. The content of the paper is thoughtful and provocative, and Zizek reaches no easy conclusions.

One of the most arresting features of this ongoing on-line discussion has been the way it has brought together people from all parts of the university in passionate but generally amicable debate. I've always been sceptical about utopian claims for the democratising effect of the internet, but there's no other medium through which I could envisage such a discussion taking place. Does it signal something positive about the potential of a medium derived from military technology? It is a complex issue, but whatever the problems generated by the chaotic nature of the world wide web's content (pornographic, racist material, lots of useful information, lots of inaccurate information), its ephemerality and its patchy accessibility, it still offers the opportunity for accessing a range of perspectives unavailable through conventional news sources.

TRYING to make sense of what is happening in the former Yugoslavia is virtually impossible when you are never quite sure what is really going on, and how the situation arose in the first place. We are encouraged to think that the distinction between good and evil is a self-evident one, but this war is not as clear cut as that. (Is any?) There are endless pundits for whom the issues are uncomplicated, but, honestly, how many non-specialists have a sufficient grasp of what is at stake, where the war has come from and where it's going, to be able to declare in absolute terms that they know what's wrong and what's right? To make taking a decisive stance more difficult still, the positions being taken with regard to the actions of Nato do not easily coincide with conventional left/right politics. Traditional allegiances do not necessarily stand up to scrutiny.

Lola Young is Professor of Cultural Studies at Middlesex University and chair of the 1999 Orange Prize for Fiction. Orange Prize for Fiction website: www.orangeprize.com

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