Today in brief: The shortlist has been announced for this year's Orange Prize for Fiction. The Guardian has compared the judges' selection favourably to the Pulitzer picks, suggesting that the Pulitzer 'study the Orange Prize playbook'. We take a peek at the chat about the contenders and hear from Kate Grenville on how her 2001 Orange Prize win changed her life. and In this week's Friday High Five, we look at some of the chatter around Fifty Shades of Grey (including a debate about submission fantasies and feminism), Chris Flynn's article on critics and show-off snark, David Sedaris on books, Adam 'Go the F**k to Sleep' Mansbach on author blurbs, and how Lego might be becoming 'less sexist'.
We share five of our favourite links to news, reviews or articles that we’ve discovered on the web over the past week.
It’s a bit weird to think that one of the hottest topics of conversation in the literary world, from London to New York, is a book that began as a self-published fan fiction e-book, and is now an international erotic bestseller backed by a multi-million dollar deal.
Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek article, ‘Spanking Goes Mainstream’ on what she diagnoses as a ‘current vogue for domination’ (or, ‘the stylised theatre of female powerlessness’), epitomised by Fifty Shades and explored on HBO’s new zeitgeisty series, Girls. Roiphe says it’s a reaction to feminism, by women who find ‘free will a burden’. The internet has exploded in angry response.
For those wondering what all the fuss is about, The Vulture has produced ‘The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Fifty Shades of Grey’, including reasons why it’s just not sexy:
‘There are ways to write sex well. This is not that. This is like Tom Wolfe–bad sex scenes but punctuated by non-sex scenes that are gut-wrenchingly awful. A passage where we find out what Anastasia Steele looks like via girl-frowning-at-her-appearance-in-a-mirror exposition should be punishment for vehicular manslaughter in some states.’
Novelist, critic and Big Issue books editor Chris Flynn has been blogging a lot for Meanjin recently. This week, he writes about the influence of the Hatchet Job of the Year Award on the kinds of reviews that are being published; wondering if the rewarding of snark promoted by the award might be encouraging reviewers to be gratuitously mean, making it more about them than the work under consideration. ‘As a casual reviewer myself I’m beginning to wonder if I’m just not mean enough to be cut out for the task,’ he writes.
He singles out the infamous New York Times take-down of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper (‘a textbook on how not to write fiction’) and Neil Genzlinger’s evisceration of television’s Game of Thrones – and its viewers (‘Dungeons and Dragons types [with a] fairly low reward threshold’).
Adam Mansbach (of Go the F**k to Sleep fame) has a very nice little satire in the New Yorker on the art of asking authors to ‘blurb’ (ie. endorse) your book. Here’s an excerpt from his pricing chart:
This is your first book. (+$100)
This is your first book in a decade. (+$150)
You’re still using the author photo from your ‘promising début’. (+$75)
I know you. (–$50)
I met you once. (–$20)
We made out at a party. (+$25)
We got drunk together at a literary festival once, but I could tell you were thinking the whole time about how now you could ask me for a blurb. (+$75)
One of the most popular articles we’ve published this year was our look at the pink-and-pastel hued ‘Lego for girls’, officially branded Lego Friends. This week, Salon reports that Lego executives have agreed to sit down to talk with SPARK, a group who hopes to get the company to include more characters in its standard Lego lines, and improve the Lego Friends line, which Time magazine compared to Disney Princess, ‘with its emphasis on physical appearance and limited career choices’.
Of course, Disney Princess – and Lego Friends – are fantastically successful with consumers, if not commentators. Salon is sceptical, thought its reporter says ‘it would be wise for a company founded nearly 50 years ago with the imperative to create toys for “girls and for boys” to remember that goal doesn’t mean “girl toys and boy toys.”’
The New York Times has launched a new regular series, ‘By the Book’, in which they interview writers about what they’re reading and recommending. They kick off with David Sedaris, who is characteristically entertaining and enlightening.
Among his confessions? ‘I like nonfiction books about people with wretched lives. The worse off the subjects, the more inclined I am to read about them. When it comes to fictional characters, I’m much less picky. Happy, confused, bitter: if I like the writing I’ll take all comers.’
The book that made him want to write? Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. ‘His short, simple sentences and familiar-seeming characters made writing look, if not exactly easy, then at least possible.’
The shortlist has been announced for the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction, the UK-based literary prize for the best book for a woman writer, now in its 17th year.
Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Canada)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (Ireland)
Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (UK)
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (US)
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (US)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (US)
Ann Patchett won the prize ten years ago, for Bel Canto, while Anne Enright won the Booker Prize for The Gathering in 2007.
Enright told the Guardian she is proud to be on the Orange shortlist. ‘It is the friendliest and most forward-looking of all the prizes, constantly bringing new names to our attention and casting older ones in a new light. It gives the bag a shake.’
American Cynthia Ozick is another frontrunner; she turned 84 on the day of the shortlist announcement. Asked whether she minded her age being a topic of discussion, she told the Guardian that while she understands journalists need something to talk about, she does found it mystifying. ‘I think that writers are judged on their work and not on their age, and that seems to me a very simple axiom. I suppose if a writer publishes a novel at the age of 10 it is worth mentioning, but if one is mature it seems rather irrelevant.’
Joanna Trollope, chair of the judges, said, ‘I think this is one of the strongest lists I’ve seen for a literary prize and I’m quite an old hand at them now. It is a list of international standing.’
Of course, she would say that, wouldn’t she? But she’s not alone in thinking so.
The decision not to award a fiction prize for the Pulitzer, the US’s most significant national literature prize, was announced just hours before the Orange shortlist.
The Guardian’s Robert McCrum lay the Pulitzer blame with a faulty selection of titles by the fiction jury, who put three titles forward for the Pulitzer board to choose a winner from (Dennis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia).
‘Respectfully, I suggest that Pulitzer swallows a hefty slice of crow pie and takes home for careful study the Orange prize playbook,’ he said.
‘This UK-based, but globally significant award is not yet as ancient or distinguished as the Pulitzer, but the people who run Orange take a great deal of care – this year’s shortlist is a model – to ensure that their nominations include six new fictions of distinction, by writers who are likely to show form over many years.’
‘Look at the list of Orange winners and you will see that, not only are there no duds, there are, among the runners-up, several writers who have already achieved greatness. Pulitzer, please take note.’
Kate Grenville, the Australian author who won the Orange Prize for The Idea of Perfection in 2001, says that the win changed her life.
’I won it for The Idea of Perfection, a book that wasn’t shortlisted for a single important Australian prize. As a result, sales were dismal. A year later, it won what was then Britain’s richest literary prize. Suddenly everyone was reading it and assuring each other that they’d always known what a great book it was. It was the same book it had always been, but now it had the stamp of approval – a big prize.’
‘Because of the Orange Prize, my next book was taken very seriously by publishers. Instead of trailing cap in hand from publisher to publisher, I had the delightful experience of them courting me. When The Secret River appeared, readers of all sexes read it … It’s sold 200,000 copies in Australia alone. It was what publishers call my ‘breakout’ book. In my case, this meant ‘breaking out’ of the stereotype of ‘women’s books’. Paradoxically, a prize for women has freed my books from the ghetto of ‘women’s writing’.
Grenville is a strong supporter (and official ambassador) of The Stella Prize, an Australian equivalent to the Orange Prize, which will annually reward the best book in any genre by an Australian woman writer each year. Organisers hope to have the prize up and running soon.
You can find out more about The Stella Prize here.
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