Women are hardly marginalised in literary culture, so why the obligatory war cry from the Orange chair? Plus, can Vintage be trusted with the classics?by Jason Cowley / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Too much girl power?
Muriel Gray, the spiky-haired ex-presenter of Channel 4’s cult rock show The Tube, is the chair of the judges of the 2007 Orange prize for women’s fiction. She’s been in combative form, as usual. “I can’t stress enough how important this prize has become to British writing, particularly as women’s voices seem to be becoming ever more marginalised in other key areas of society,” she said.
I’m not quite sure what she means by this, but whether or not women are becoming more marginalised generally, the opposite is happening in the world of letters, in this country at least—which is all for the good. For a start, women have their own lucrative fiction prize, the winner of which is guaranteed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Women are beginning to dominate the bestseller lists as well, helped in no small part by Channel 4’s Richard and Judy book club. The husband and wife team’s selections are guaranteed bestsellers; the top three selling new paperbacks last year, all novels—Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, Victoria Hislop’s The Island, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian—were endorsed by Richard and Judy. “One obvious way in which their book club has reshaped the top 100 is in making its upper reaches female-dominated,” wrote John Dugdale in an excellent commentary on the year’s bestsellers in the Guardian. “If you strip out titles not published in 2006, for example, eight of the top ten novels are by women.” There is a certain literary snobbery directed at Richard and Judy, which is unfair, perhaps, when you consider how they have transformed our reading culture, as indeed did the Orange prize. Their choices are often interesting and challenging, even if the subjects of the novels they favour—and they are invariably novels—can be sensational or issue-driven: one of their selections for 2007, Lori Lansen’s The Girls, is narrated by a conjoined twin. “What we are looking for in a book,” says one of the researchers on the show, “is talkability.” And why not? After all, Richard and Judy is an afternoon talk show, no more or less. “The book club has nailed the lie that daytime TV is for ‘dimwits’ and ‘bored housewives,'” Richard Madeley has said. “We demonstrated that our viewers are intelligent people who relish the opportunity to read and discuss books.” And so they do.
One of the…