Saturday, May 09, 2009

Manchester Fiction Prize

I wasn't particularly inspired by the rules of the MMU's Manchester Poetry Prize, as its criteria, (number of lines/number of poems)seemed to preclude more interesting writing, (though the shortlisted poems are worth reading), so I'm pleased that this year, with the launch of the Manchester Fiction Prize, there's some reason for optimism. It's actually a short story prize, which is perhaps sensible, though makes the title a little disingenuous, (are good fiction and good stories the same thing?) and allows for stories up to 5000 words, which will enable the entry of short stories, rather than just stories that are short! I'm also excited by the judges: experienced editor and short story Nicholas Royle is joined by Sarah Hall and M. John Harrison, so a trio of writers who are not immune to more speculative forms of fiction. Sensibly, there appears to be no rules other than length. At a cost of £15 per entry its still a little like having a bet on the National, but I can't help but be excited by this, in a way I wasn't about the poetry prize, and given my recent luck with the National, better value for money. With a mid-August closing date, there's time to write something new, or hone something that you've been working on; with the Manchester Literature Festival as the all-too-appropriate time and place for the unveiling of the winners. With the shortlist for the Edge Hill Prize also announced recently, (for best collection), as well as the National Short Story prize, there's beginning to seem like a genuine infrastructure for promoting the form - that may mirror that available for poetry.

Although today's Guardian article on American women writers has much in it that needs saying, I can't help but think that Elaine Showalter's choices are a little too traditional; a little too in the mould of the "great American novel" template that she castigates for being too male. These are writers, she says, "with PhDs," (as if that is any judge of a good novelist), who seem mostly to have written alot of books, - and big books at that - and of a certain generation. Where is A.M. Homes or Suzanne Berne or Donna Tartt or Suri Hustvedt or Louise Erdrich or Lorrie Moore? Barbara Kingsolver is mentioned in passing, but surely "The Poisonwood Bible" would rate highly on any list of novels of the last twenty years? The article, of course, is an extract from her book, called "A jury of her peers," and Showalter, born in 1941, is probably doing an overdue service in reminding us of a female generation the equal of the Updikes-Bellows-Roths, but those male writers are undoubtedly giants, whatever their sex - there are few younger American male writers who would even aspire to that chimera, "the great American novel," and there's no doubt that a list of the best contemporary American fiction writers would feature female writers heavily.

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