Writing award sparks literary controversy Title fight: Judges of a women's-only book contest decried many of the entries. But Baltimore novelist Anne Tyler, among six finalists, came out unscathed.

April 16, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Baltimore novelist Anne Tyler was dragged into a British book brawl yesterday and all she did was get nominated for a new literary award -- for women only.

Ms. Tyler's best seller "Ladder of Years," was among six finalists for the inaugural $45,000 Orange Prize for female authors writing in English. But even as the list was revealed, controversy erupted as two judges on the five-women panel provided devastating criticism of many of the 146 books they had read for this year's prize.

The judges said they had no doubts about the quality of the finalists' works. But they ripped the overall field of women novelists.

Book critic Val Hennessy, told the Daily Telegraph yesterday: "I have judged several prizes before and I have seldom come across so many books that were just so bad. Some were just drivel. I am ashamed that some of the titles submitted were even published or that trees had to be cut down to provide paper for them, or that publishers saw fit to put them up for such a major prize."

Novelist Susan Hill said, "I have to be a bit careful but I think I can say I thought the quality of entries was abysmal, terrible."

The works were criticized for containing too much violence, too much trivia and too much gratuitous cursing. The judges also added that the American books were, on the whole, more energetic and less self-absorbed, than the British ones. Four of the six finalists were produced by Americans.

"So many of the books were by women with nothing to say," said Ms. Hill, a former Whitbread Prize winner.

"Too many of the books were about women having nervous breakdowns, leaving their husbands and going off to find themselves," added Ms. Hennessy, chief book critic for the Daily Mail.

The Telegraph ran the story under the headline, "Obscene, brutal, boring and dreary drivel."

Neither of the judges could be reached for comment yesterday. But author Kate Mosse, head of the committee, said their comments were taken out of context and she blamed the British media for putting a sensational spin on the story. She said hTC judges of book awards are routinely faced with a pile of inferior works.

"Loads of crummy books are published every year," Ms. Mosse said.

British book awards usually bring out the worst in authors, publishers and judges, who engage in a literary roller derby. The infighting is usually fiercest in the leadup to the Booker Prize, the most famous British literary award which often produces a winner that is ignored by the general reading public.

But when it comes to controversy, the Orange Prize has quickly eclipsed its rivals. Its proponents say the reason is simple: gender. The clubby British literary scene is dominated by men and some of them clobbered the Orange Prize even before it got off the ground. Some critics branded the award as sexist and claimed it would put women in a literary ghetto.

The award's patrons say the women-only format was needed because women were getting short-changed on the short-lists of major prizes.

"We've obviously struck a very deep vein here," Ms. Mosse said. "While people will accept there might be bias against women in almost every other field, literature is a holy cow. If you suggest that books by women don't get on short-lists of other awards, they jump on you.

"People say, 'Well, women aren't as good at writing as men,' " she said. "Well, with that attitude, we're back to the Victorian era."

Author and critic Mark Lawson, a former Booker Prize judge, said the current literary row was "astonishing" and agreed that the controversy was inflamed by a literary battle of the sexes.

"On the short-list, there are some extremely good writers of whom Anne Tyler is the best," he said.

Ms. Mosse agreed that Ms. Tyler's book was exceptional. Her "Ladder of Years" describes a Baltimore housewife who leaves her family during a beach vacation and creates a new life for herself in a fictional Eastern Shore town.

"Anne Tyler's novel is almost beyond praise," Ms. Mosse said. "There is more of a spirit of place in that novel then most novels I've ever read."

The other nominees are "The Book of Color" by Julia Blackburn, "A Spell of Winter" by Helen Dunmore, "Spinsters" by Pagan Kennedy, "The Hundred Secret Senses" by Amy Tan and "Eveless Eden" by Marianne Wiggins, ex-wife of novelist Salman Rushdie.

One notable omission was Pat Barker's "The Ghost Road," winner of the Booker Prize last fall.

The winner will be announced May 15.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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