Tomorrow a [pounds sterling]25,000 prze for romantic novels will be awarded.Here one of the judges launches a devastating attack on how this gentle, literary genre has been hijacked by purveyors of coarse sex
NOVELISTS are often the first to detect the earliest tiny tremors of social earthquakes and what they are detecting today suggests that something seriously disturbing is stirring in the depths of British women's psyche.
Women novelists nowadays are increasingly writing books that are astonishingly sleazy, foul-mouthed and violent.
As one of the judges for this year's [pounds sterling]25,000 Betty Trask prize, the 12th, which will be awarded tomorrow for first novels `of a romantic or traditional nature' by authors under 35, I have been astonished by the amount of explicit tackiness in novels entered for such a prize. Miss Trask, a historical novelist herself, wrote 33 books, including Beauty Retires and I Tell My Heart and when she died in 1983 she left [pounds sterling]400,000 to be used to set up the prize.
A third of all this year's entries were amazingly squalid and all but two of these were written by young women. Nor is it just the Betty Trask awards that are nowadays deluged by sleazy entries from women writers.
When Britain's newest and most valuable prize for fiction, the [pounds sterling]30,000, women-only Orange Prize, was awarded for the first time last Wednesday to Helen Dunmore for A Spell Of Winter, her novel about incest, abortion and abandoned children, the prize's sponsor, the Orange telecommunications company, was still reeling from the savage criticisms of two of the judges, the novelist Susan Hill and the Daily Mail's Val Hennessy. Both attacked the `abysmal' standard of entries.
`I have seldom come across so many books that were so bad,' said Ms Hennessy. `Some were just drivel.'
Susan Hill went further: `There were shining exceptions but in general the quality of entries was abysmal. I have never read more sexual descriptions and four-letter words dragged in willy-nilly. Women are writing rather more brutally than they used to. They used to despise physical violence. Now, all of a sudden, they are writing about a lot of physical violence. There is a paucity of imagination, major themes, and a paucity of wit. Instead, there's a lot of dirty words.'
In case you think that Ms Hill and I are being absurdly old-fashioned and squeamish, let me give you a taste of some of the nastier Betty Trask entries this year.
Some of the books written by men were appalling enough, like Morvern Callar by 31-year-old Alan Warner, a repulsive story about a drunken, 21-year-old Scottish slag in which we are treated to a suicide, an orgy, porn videos, masturbation, lots of vomiting and a scene in which our heroine wakes to find that the man she picked up the previous night has defecated on her stomach because she was too drunk to have sex.
Equally unattractive is Marked For Life by 26-year-old Paul Magrs, in which a tattooed-all-over homosexual is assaulted with a candle by his wife, whose mother lives with a lesbian lover. There's a lot of vomit in this one, too, and I'm not surprised considering how explicit the scenes of homosexual sex are.
Some of the women writers are even cruder and there are many more of them. Thirty-year-old Deborah Bosley's Let Me Count The Ways tells the immensely depressing, utterly unromantic story of a girl whose homosexual husband has Aids. It is splattered with the most basic four-letter words and nauseating and explicit descriptions of body fluids. At one stage the heroine tries to kiss her husband's sores - and this is meant to be a romantic novel. …