A. S. Byatt, the Booker Prize winner in 1990 for Possession, has won the James Tait Black Award for her stunning novel, The Children’s Book, shortlisted for the Booker last year. I was convinced that she would win the Booker and was surprised that Hilary Mantel not only won this but almost every other prize, including the National Book Critics Circle Award (an American award). Thank goodness Byatt won something for this masterpiece.
On Aug. 20 Byatt also made the controversial statement at the Edinburgh international book festival that women who write intellectual fiction encounter difficulties. ”If you are trying to think, there are always reviewers who take the attitude that it’s like a dog standing on its hind legs, as Samuel Johnson put it: it would be better if you didn’t do it.”
She also said she cried when a publisher tried to cut out big chunks of her poetry from the Booker-winning novel Possession.
Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian was all over Byatt about her statements about women and quoted A. L. Kennedy, Ian Rankin, and John Carey as disagreeing with Byatt about intellectual women writers. Kennedy (the only woman) cited herself as an intellectual writer who has not had a hard time and said Byatt was “dated.” Ian Rankin vaguely said he thought Byatt was wrong and that he had studied Muriel Spark in school. Gosh, Mr. Rankin, she may be dead now! Carey, a professor emeritus at Oxford and a former Booker judge, mentioned George Eliot. One has to groan. Weren’t we talking about contemporary writers?
Higgins of The Guardian seems to have found exactly what she wanted to hear: otherwise I see no reason for quoting two men and one woman. She also made no attempt to gather any stats on what’s being published by women: romances & chick lit vs. the intellectual fiction of Byatt, Deborah Eisenberg, Margaret Drabble, and…well, there’s obviously somebody else out there. She could have waited a day to publish and called the British version of Publishers Weekly, but instead we’ve basically got a rock review here. Whether Byatt is right or wrong, you have to do a little legwork to prove or disprove her point.
But of course Byatt also condemned the Orange Prize and you know that’s going to make a few enemies. I don’t necessarily agree with her about everything, but there is a lot of junk being published now and perhaps less intellectual fiction among both genders. Of course I read my share of junk and intend to sit down with a Georgette Heyer or Victoria Holt later!
LEONARD WOOLF: I read more of Leonard Woolf’s Growing today and was especially impressed by his explicit horrifying description of capital punishment in Ceylon. As part of his job as an administrator in Kandy he was required to stand in front of the gallows in the early morning and give the signal for the “drop.” He said that in two out of six or seven hangings something went wrong:
“a body went on twitching violently and the executioner went and pulled on the legs. In the other case four men had to hang one morning and they were hanged two by two. The first two were hanged correctly, but either they gave one of the second two too big a drop or something else went wrong for his head was practically torn from his body and a great jet of blood spurted up three or four feet, covering the gallows and the priest praying on the steps.”
He pointed out that all the evidence in all countries indicates that these killings do not deter others from crime. He adds that sensational coverage in newspapers inspires copycat crime.