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The Man Booker Prize and Other Musings
by Carolyn Kelly

Book Wolf Hall It was late on a Tuesday evening: I was sitting in front of my computer screen, repeatedly pressing F5 like a woman possessed in the hope of reading the news of this year's winner of the Booker Prize. The best part of a bottle of Bordeaux had already gone south, in an attempt to keep the nerves at bay, or at least give them something to float in. And while it's not exactly the done thing in polite circles, and is more than a little childish, the feral yowl of joy that presently escaped my lips could be heard in Scandinavia - Hilary Mantel had won with her majestic book Wolf Hall.

It is a book that has been reviewed by every major newspaper from here to the moon by now, and I find that there is little that I can add to the universal praise. Since reading it this summer, it has remained by far the best book I have read this year. Despite the strongest Booker short list in many years, including very worthy books by J.M. Coetzee and Simon Mawer and Adam Foulds, not to mention the majestic A.S. Byatt and the rollicking Sarah Waters, I found I had never wanted a book to win so desperately as I did this year.

I just wish to heaven it wasn't now officially called the Man Booker Prize. I screamed when I heard the news of the new sponsorship in 2002. And my worst fears were promptly confirmed - I've met more than nine people who genuinely and innocently thought that the Booker Prize was only for men, purely because of the official name. Statistically, that's a huge number, considering the number of people I actually meet (we translators don't get out much). What the dickens motivated the prize organisers to choose the Man Group plc. as its main sponsor? Of course, I can understand the company's logic behind the decision. Indeed, only last Saturday while out shopping, I honestly couldn't decide between the merits of Man's broad spectrum of robust alternative investment products and those of its nearest competitor. In the end I plumped for the former, simply because of its generous endowment of the literary arts (but I forgot to buy milk). So yes, that's a canny marketing move on Man's part, targeting just the right kind of customer base, the kind that quips lines of Christina Rosetti while recognising the need to spread risk and sources of return in their portfolios. But for crying out loud, the name, the NAME!!! If you ask me, it's yet another hurdle for women to leap.

I appreciate that it costs positively squillions of pounds to run the whole business, from the prize money to the fancy pants ceremony in London's Guildhall, though why they couldn't have stretched to more than an utterly dozy website I'll never understand. And it is, at least, better than being sponsored by Playboy, or Viagra, or the Daily Mail.

So. The Man Booker Prize it is, and it has been won by women in three of the last four years, which represents something of a quantum catch-up, as women have only won 15 of all 41 prizes awarded since its inception. Thinking this over, I suddenly realise that, while I am an enormous fan of such winners and non-winners as J.M. Coetzee, Colm Tóibín, John McGahern, Ronan Bennett, John Banville and countless other male writers, it does actually matter to me that the female perspective gets its fair slice of the cake. But why do I care so much about whether a woman wins the Booker every now and again?

Naturally, the media has—in this, as in all things—its dastardly role to play. I got so utterly fed up with commentary of this year's short list, proclaiming that it was dominated by women. Dominated by women? Yes, women who wrote three of the six shortlisted books thus, in one fell swoop, changing the concept of proportional mathematics forever. You may have thought that they represented precisely half of the shortlisted authors, but oh no: simply by means of dipping their dainty little toes into the Manly Booker waters, they achieved literary domination, at least until next year.

Can't it be considered normal for women writers to play a full and respected role in modern literary life without either ignoring or patronising them? Is it so inconceivable that women can write extraordinarily good literature, and don't need to be patted on the head for it? Many of us rejoiced when the Orange Prize for Fiction was established in 1996, to be awarded to a female author of any nationality for the best original full-length novel written in English. It was and remains very important, both symbolically and artistically, as a representation of women's unity, as proof that women actually write and read more books - but do they write better books? While the Orange undoubtedly raised the bar for fiction and deserves credit for having shifted the boundaries for all sorts of other prizes, I still find myself returning to that (more or less) level playing field of the Booker Prize, to really take the temperature of women's place in contemporary literature.

Women's fiction is always in danger of being compartmentalised in a way that men's fiction never is. Historical fiction, with its lace and its dancing and its scented letters, is a case in point, and nobody addresses "the accusation [...] that authors are ducking the tough issues in favour of writing about frocks" better than Hilary Mantel in this recent article. One male doctor, by whose chubby fingers I recently had the displeasure of being treated, asked me cursorily what my interests were before embarking on a long list of his favourite type of book – heavy, weighty and serious historical novels, all of them written by men "and not rubbish like those historical novels by Jane Austen, harrumph." Well, I quite agree. Regency England is so lame. What on earth was she thinking? Quite aside from the fact that the good doctor was obviously unaware that Austen was not writing historical fiction, but rather cutting edge commentaries on the society of her day... but it's just not meaty enough, is it, this womanly stuff.

And that's another, more frustrating, claim about women's fiction: It is too concerned with the domestic, with the small and insignificant privacies of everyday life. While men tend to see the great, sweeping social, political and economic matters and can wrestle them into mighty tomes that seep with barely-contained brawn and a raw sexuality, women knit. And scribble a little bit on the side. Mostly about inconsequential things, such as housework and families and, oh, child abuse and domestic violence. The very implication that child abuse and family violence is something small scale and domestic (and only of interest in the woman's sphere), rather than being of vital social importance, is the greatest insult imaginable. Such attitudes prevent people looking at the immense craft involved in describing not just the large-scale world, but the fine detail of emotion, the inner landscapes of the soul. It is an attitude that still prevails and it is why it really matters to me that women authors also win the Booker Prize and as a result, possibly, are also in with a chance of being read by men.

Even the winners sometimes have it hard, though: an example can be seen in the negative reaction to Anne Enright's win in 2007, with The Gathering. It is a book painted on a small—yes, domestic—canvas. It deals with the unspeakable, within the context of family. Its themes (love, sex, death) are universal and fundamental to all human life. There is a fury to the book, though it dances with wit. It is brave, devastating, sharply intelligent, socially important, feminine yet fierce. It was not a popular winner.

Thankfully, this is a fate from which Wolf Hall will be spared, with its very promising sales figures in the UK, which will surely be reflected in the US. It is a healthy signal to today's risk-averse publishers that women's fiction— serious, literary fiction—is alive and well, and more popular than ever among readers and critics alike. On the evening of the announcement, I happily sloshed the rest of the Bordeaux into my glass, and indeed, it felt full. Well done, Hilary!

Photo of Du stirbst nicht The world's largest and most important book fair, the Frankfurt Book Fair, was a bit of a washout this year, if you ask me. All the publishers were in the doldrums, staff have been let go left, right and centre due to the recession, nobody wanted to talk about the place of women in contemporary literature, and the controversial "guest land", China, was strangely male-centred. Thank goodness, then, for the announcement of the winner of the German Book Prize (Deutscher Buchpreis) 2009. The prize was established in 2005, precisely and deliberately along the lines of the Booker Prize, in the hope of garnering more interest for contemporary literary fiction written in the German language. Astoundingly, it seems to have worked, with a lot of positive press and increased sales figures blessing the books concerned. Interestingly (or not, depending on your interests), two of the four previous winners were women, which added an extra frisson to this year's list. As did the presence of this year's winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Herta Müller. Crikey, imagine beating a Nobel Prize winner for the best book of the year! Well, Hilary Mantel just did it – would the same thing happen in Germany?

Yes. In the end, it was won by an intriguing book by Kathrin Schmidt: Du stirbst nicht, which will soon (I hope) be released in English with the title "You're Not Going to Die".

From the blurb: Helene Wesendahl has no idea what has happened: she wakes up in hospital, has no control over her body, is unable to speak and has lost her memory. Through her eyes, we see the hospital ward, the other patients, the nursing staff and Helene's own body, which has suddenly taken on a life of its own. And we experience her laborious rehabilitation, the reactions of her family, her husband's selfless commitment – and the fragmentary return of her memory. What comes back to her confronts Helene with a life in which she barely recognises herself and which calls into question much of what now seems so normal. She discovers inconsistencies in her biography, suppressed passions and commitments born out of necessity. When she realises her affections had begun to wander and that she was planning to leave the man who is now caring for her with such devotion, Helene's world starts to fall apart. Kathrin Schmidt enables the reader to feel what it's like to lose one's sense of orientation and ability to speak after a stroke, and she describes a road to recovery that takes two directions, backwards and forwards. This is a coming-of-age novel of a very unique kind: the reader is riveted by its inner dynamism and fascinated by the wholeheartedness with which the protagonist confronts both her past and present.

You can read an excerpt in English here. And as soon as it is published in English, we'll review it on Belletrista. Watch this space!