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 …