Friday 22 September 2017

Putting writers into pigeon-holed groups is no basis for a literary prize

You can tell discriminatory book awards by their colour. First there was the Orange Prize, decreeing that only women were eligible to compete, and then last year along came the Green Carnation prize, for which only gays, bisexuals or those with a transgender orientation can enter.

Colm Tóibín's short story collection, The Empty Family, features on its current shortlist and I'm surprised that so eminent a writer, whose books transcend any pigeon-holing, would consent to go along with this ridiculous exercise in special pleading.

Michelle Pauli, who is deputy editor of the Guardian's online book site and is one of this year's judges, sees it differently -- as the "token straight" on the judging panel, she's thrilled that the award "celebrates the best LGBT writers for an audience of all readers, gay or straight". (LGBT, by the way, is shorthand for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).

Leave aside the fact that, by that criterion, Emma Donoghue's Room and Tóibín's Brooklyn would be eligible for such an award, even though there's nothing remotely gay about either of those novels -- it's the compartmentalisation of writers into exclusive, and exclusionary, groupings that's farcical.

The shortlist is even annoying gay people, with mutterings over the exclusion of acclaimed new novels by Alan Hollinghurst, Ali Smith and Philip Hensher.

"Shortlist snubs famous gay writers" ran a newspaper headline last week, thus granting publicity to a prize that doesn't deserve it.

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Meanwhile, Tóibín, who has taken over from Martin Amis as professor of creative writing at Manchester University, has written a 20,000-word memoir for Penguin's new ebook initiative, which will feature specially commissioned short works available only in digital format.

These include a novella by Anita Brookner and a short story by Helen Dunmore, they can be downloaded for €2.50 and they'll be obtainable from December 1 to capitalise on the Christmas market.

Ebooks now account for 10pc of all books sold in these islands, which is either an exciting development or the end of civilisation as we know it. I haven't made my mind up yet.

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