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Weekly Roundup: Is the literary world dominated by men and the merits of book prizes

Weekly Roundup: Is the literary world dominated by men and the merits of book prizes

Elizabeth Jane Howard, a Man Booker judge in 1974, has just turned 90 and celebrated by handing in the manuscript for volume five of her lauded Cazalet Chronicles series. She is a formidable woman (as the former wife of Kingsley Amis she'd need to be) but told an interviewer for the Observer that she nevertheless feels the literary world is dominated by men: “They all scratch each other's backs and understandably they like each other's books and write about them and they've got an inbuilt feeling that none of us can really be very much good.” The point was picked up by Alexandra Pringle, the head of the publishers Bloomsbury. She pointed out, however, that it is women who have the real power: only 20 per cent of fiction readers are men, which is why jacket designs are aimed at the female audience. It is the feminine pound that has the clout. She went on to defend the use of photographs of pulchritudinous authors such as the Man Booker International judge Aminatta Forna on the grounds that: “beauty is tragically rarely provided by the male race. Yes, women are both better looking and better read than men.”


In a trenchant piece about literary prizes, the historian Amanda Foreman, an Man Booker Prize judge last year, pointed out the startling fact that there are now some 6,000 extant prizes. She has both received and judged several of them herself so is in a position to assess their worth. While some writers – Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw, for example – have been sniffy about prizes, likening them to an attack of artistic integrity, Foreman ringingly stated where she stands: “Literary prizes are the lighting of the candle that helps society to convene, to share in conversation and see beyond itself. A prize may hail a masterpiece or discover a new artist; but its fundamental purpose is to fill the silence with ideas.”


Julian Barnes, Man Booker Prize winner in 2011, has been speaking about the deleterious effects of library closures on British literacy rates. He believes the death of some libraries is a “shocking act” and a further reason why “we continue to slip down the world league table for literacy”. It is a subject close to the Booker Prize Foundation's heart. The Foundation helps libraries to encourage their users to sample the best literature – currently 35% of the UK's 4,612 libraries have promotions linked to the Man Booker Prize. The reason arts ministers don't take action, Barnes suggests (partly tongue in cheek admittedly) is that they believe their job is “either an embarrassment or a punishment (maybe for being caught reading a novel in the Commons canteen)”.


When asked to name his hero, John Banville, Man Booker Prize winner in 2005 with The Sea, didn't plump for a philanthropist, military leader or sportsman but someone more modest: “My dog Rex, a Border Collie. He is unfailingly cheerful, willingly takes me for walks, and to humour me chases a ball when I throw it for him.”