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Orange Prize is No Joking Matter

Posted by Erin Brown in authors books literary awards on March 24, 2010


orange prize

The long list for the Orange Prize for Fiction was announced last week. One of the top literary awards in the U.K., along with the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Book Award, the £30,000 prize is given to a woman author of any nationality for the best original novel written in English.

Culled from a pile of 129 contenders, this year’s long list is comprised mostly of British authors, but there are also three from the U.S. (including Lorrie Moore and Barbara Kingsolver), as well as lone representatives from New Zealand and Morocco. In addition to the works of established authors, the list features seven debut novels, including Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You, which has, until now apparently, not received a single review from a British national newspaper.

See the full list here.

The Orange Prize is making news this year because of some provocative comments made by the chair of the judge’s panel, author and TV producer Daisy Goodwin, who complained that she’d been inundated by “misery literature”—a surfeit of rape, child abuse, and bereavement—that made her feel like a “social worker” on the verge of slitting her wrists.

“There was very little wit, and no jokes,” Goodwin told the Independent.

“I was surprised at how little I laughed,” she told the Guardian, charging that such novels represent little more than a repackaging of the highly marketable “misery memoir” and that publishers are “lagging behind what the public want.”

Goodwin also made repeated references to the neglected value of reading as “pleasure” and her desire to be absorbed in a “pleasurable” book. Some took her remarks as a call for lighter fare, but I think she is getting at something else when she says that, to be compelling, a story must have more than an “issue” at its core. Although Goodwin’s comments were inelegantly delivered, it seems legitimate to insist that a literary novel must be defined by its artistry—in its prose, in its ideas, and in the keen, unique subjectivity of its narrator or protagonist—not merely by its graphic depiction of violence or misfortune. Perhaps it was not the content of the “misery” novels that Goodwin objected to but rather the writing itself.

I’m particularly interested in the question of humor and how women might use it more, even in their darkest stories. Granted it’s not easy to be funny about personal tragedy, but it’s worth trying, as humor can transform a narrative of victimization into one of resistance and self-possession.


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