Spare us your misery, Orange prize judge tells authors

Daisy Goodwin says reading the 129 entries to this year's competition sometimes drove her to despair

To book lovers, it might appear to be a delicious, if demanding, treat – the opportunity to devour more than 100 novels by women writers and award one of them the prestigious Orange prize.

But the chair of this year's judging panel has launched a stinging criticism of the current "grim" crop of women's fiction – complaining that female authors appear to have suffered a collective sense of humour failure.

"There's not been much wit and not much joy, there's a lot of grimness out there," Daisy Goodwin, the author and TV producer, told the Guardian. "There are a lot of books about Asian sisters. There are a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing."

Reading the 129 entries to this year's competition had sometimes driven Goodwin to despair, she said, as she revealed this year's longlist. "I think the misery memoir has had its day, but there are an awful lot of books out there which had not a shred of redemption in them. I'm more of a light and shade person and there does need to be some joy, not just misery."

"I was surprised at how little I laughed … and the ones where there was humour were much appreciated I can tell you."

She accused publishers of "lagging behind what the public want", of not getting that readers do want pleasure and do want enjoyment when they read. "There comes a point halfway through the process where you think: 'Is it me or them?' You just can't bear it any more. And then you come across this joyful book."

Her frustrations aside, Goodwin said she and her fellow judges were proud of the 20-strong longlist, revealed today. She called it a "muscular" list, full of "pleasurable" and varied books. It includes some familiar books, notably Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker, and Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger, which was shortlisted. Seven are longlisted for their debut novels – among them the film producer Rosie Alison, whose book The Very Thought of You has not had a single national newspaper review.

The other first novels are Eleanor Catton for The Rehearsal; Laila Lalami for Secret Son; Nadifa Mohamed for Black Mamba Boy; Amy Sackville for The Still Point; Kathryn Stockett for The Help and Attica Locke for Black Water Rising which represents a genre rarely seen at literary prizes – it's a thriller.

The former Orange winner Andrea Levy is longlisted for The Long Song and there are former shortlisted novelists in the form of Sadie Jones for Small Wars, Mantel, Waters and Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna. The most surprising omissions are probably the 2008 Orange winner Rose Tremain, not there for Trespass, as well as there being no Anne Michaels or Valerie Martin. The longlist is completed by Clare Clark, for Savage Lands; Amanda Craig for Hearts and Minds; Roopa Farooki for The Way Things Look to Me; Rebecca Gowers for The Twisted Heart; MJ Hyland for This is How; Maria McCann for The Wilding; Lorrie Moore for A Gate at the Stairs; and Monique Roffey for The Woman on the Green Bicycle.

The judges, who also include Julia Neuberger, Michele Roberts, Miranda Sawyer and Alexandra Shulman, will announce a shortlist on 20 April.

Contributor

Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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