If it's not Callil resigning from the Booker jury, it's Naipaul condemning women writers. All great fun, as long as we separate the debate from the reading
If you are a woman who writes books, or writes about them, or reads them with anything more than a casual interest, these are tricky times. Last week saw the culmination of the 16th annual Orange prize for fiction, an award that, as most know, is open only to women. The Serbian-American writer Téa Obreht, with her novel, The Tiger's Wife, became, at 25, the prize's youngest-ever winner; it is only the third time that the Orange has gone to a debut novel.
From 2005 until last year, there was also a separate prize for new writers, and while its discontinuation can't be taken as a cause for Obreht's victory – she might very well have won anyway – it could explain why this year saw so many first-time authors grace both longlist and shortlist.
It's never a bad thing when a comparatively unknown figure wins a major prize, when the idea that such plaudits exist in part to introduce the reading public to new voices is backed up by hard cash (the Orange nets its winner £30,000). And, well into its second decade, with the prize's significance established, the arguments surrounding its right to exist have lost some of their sting. It can sometimes seem, indeed, that the impassioned argy-bargy of a few years ago over a prize that excluded half our novelists has been subsumed by the realisation that a publishing and bookselling industry in desperate straits needs all the attention-grabbing devices that it can get.
And yet there was something very healthy about that debate, or at least it feels like that in the light of the last few weeks. For what are we left with otherwise? A judge, Carmen Callil, resigns from a jury, the International Man Booker, because she does not support its choice, Philip Roth. She makes some immoderate remarks and soon the chatter revolves around whether Roth is a misogynist and, by implication, Callil his feminist nemesis (neither charge stands much scrutiny).
Barely can the dust settle before VS Naipaul decides to condemn all women writers to the lace-frilled dustbin of literary history; it takes one of his targets, Diana Athill, who, at 93, might reasonably prefer to be left in peace, to tell everyone to take no notice.
Meanwhile, on her blog and in the Guardian, the commentator and critic Bidisha is busy tallying how many awards go to men and how many to women, concluding that "a man does a shit in a potty and it is called a work of genius; a woman produces a work of genius and it's treated like a shit in a potty".
In all this, everybody has a point – perhaps even Naipaul, because what are writers without the occasional unhinged outburst? But the tenor and content of the debate have become frighteningly basic and automatically adversarial; stand in the middle scratching your head and you risk being accused of colluding with the wrong side. Rarely, though, does the conversation lead in the direction of the page; rarely do the books we are actually talking about get much of a look-in. It seems beyond banal to point out that literature is a broad enough church to accommodate writing by both genders, all races and religions, every class background.
Are we, therefore, just vying over the spoils, the public acclaim, the cultural status? Maybe, and maybe quite rightly. But let's be clear that's what we are doing and let's separate it from what we do when we read a book