It is the year 2014. The Earth is a dystopian disaster. The planet has been destroyed by fossil fuel wars, the internet has wrecked the human attention span, the food is genetically engineered… and now the Man Booker Prize judges have selected only three women’s books for the longlist.
The three are: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (which I loved), Siri Hustedt’s The Blazing World, and Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.
There are four male judges and two female judges, but since I’ve never heard of any of them, I’m going to pass on judging judges.
But the numbers suggest we’re back in the world of 1959, when Norman Mailer wrote in Advertisements for Myself:
I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict maybe taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure—that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.
All right, Norman. That’s just boyish hi-jinks.
But let me not pretend that women writers/judges are better than men. Some are, some are not. In an article published last year in The Daily Beast, “The 12 Biggest Booker Controversies,” I learned about some fascinating Booker scandals.
In 1993, after Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting made the longlist, two women judges said “their feminist sensibilities were offended” and they would resign if the book made the shortlist. Sometimes women have power. Good call.
Carmen Calil, founder of Virago Books, always gets attention. According to The Daily Beast,
“Hours after Arundhati Roy won the prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things, author Carmen Callil—the chair of the previous year’s committee—criticized the book on the BBC as “execrable,” saying it never should have even made the shortlist.”
Calil is clearly an important figure in British publishing, but she also ran to the press in 2011 after Philip Roth won the International Man Booker Prize. She said she resigned from the panel of judges after the two male judges chose Roth. I still don’t understand how the prize could have been awarded without a consensus among three judges.
Then there is A. L. Kennedy, who was a Booker judge in 1996. According to The Daily Beast, she said in 2001 the Booker was “a pile of crooked nonsense,”and that it was decided by “who knows who, who’s sleeping with who, who’s selling drugs to who, who’s married to who, whose turn it is.”
( A. L. really needs to read pop fiction. Most of us discovered how the world worked by reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or Judith Krantz’s Scruples.)
The last scandal occurred in 2011 when Dame Stella Rimington, the chair of the judges, said they were looking for “readability.” It’s not that we DIDN’T want a readable book, but most of us were looking for the next A. S. Byatt, not the next Rosamund Pilcher.
The judges this year, about whom I know nothing, are: AC Grayling, a philosopher and this year’s cahir; Jonathan Bate, Oxford Professor of English Literature and biographer; Sarah Churchwell, UEA’s Professor of American Literature; Dr Daniel Glaser, neuroscientist and cultural commentator; Dr Alastair Niven, former Director of Literature at the British Council and at the Arts Council; and Erica Wagner, journalist and writer.
Good luck, break a leg, and all is forgiven if the award goes to an interesting book….by a man or a woman.