The literary world has lost the female plot
It is easier to win major awards by writing a male lead character, say Booker Prize-winning authors
It is easier to win major literary awards by writing a lead character who is a man, Booker Prize-winning authors have suggested, as they warn that the tendency to laud novels with male protagonists is “concerning”.
Dame Hilary Mantel, the only woman to have won the Man Booker Prize twice for the first two novels of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, said it “might be observed” that her award success came easier for having a male protagonist than if she had been writing about a woman.
Saying the dismissal of women’s historical fiction had “sunk a lot of good writers” in the past, Mantel argued that female writers must be encouraged to be more ambitious to “embrace the totality” of the human experience in their novels.
Asked about the success of her own novels Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, which star a man, Cromwell, as their central character, she said: “It might be observed, it might be thought, that it was easier for us to win a Booker Prize writing about men than writing about women’s experience.”
Mantel, who appeared in conversation on stage at the Man Booker 50 festival in London, said her own work, and that of fellow award-winner Pat Barker, was “unexpected” for female writers, in that it “embraced the epic”.
Barker, who won the Booker in 1995 with The Ghost Road, said: “It does concern me slightly that the vast majority of Orange Prize [now known as the Women’s Prize for Fiction] winners do have male protagonists.
“I think when it’s roughly 50/50 we’ll know things are in a healthier state than they are at the moment.”
Eleanor Catton, who became the youngest Man Booker winner in 2013 with The Luminaries and was in the audience at the Southbank Centre, said the point about male protagonists was “definitely true”.
“Lamentably, it’s true,” she said. “I hope that is will be untrue at some point. It doesn’t have to be true but I think it still is.
“It has made me more determined to write from a female perspective from now on.”
Saying she had noticed the effect in retrospect after the success of her own novel, which follows the fortunes of 19th-century prospector Walter Moody, she added that the male experience is still seen as “universal” while writing about the female perspective is “exclusively the property of women”.
Just two Man Booker Prize winners this century have featured a sole female protagonist, last winning in 2007 with Anne Enright’s The Gathering.
For the prize, along with other major literary awards, a winner is selected from books submitted by publishers, reflecting the market of the year.
Asked about her own career, Mantel said she had been met with a “general air of disbelief” when she had announced she hoped to write historical fiction in a publishing world which still assumed it meant a “bodice ripper”.
“I think quite rightly what has happened since then has been quite extraordinary,” she said. “It’s been rescued from genre. It’s no longer pushed off into the little section of the bookshop and it’s no longer labelled as for women, which I think has sunk a lot of good writers.
“This perception that historical fiction was historical romance, thankfully we’ve got passed that.
“I think it’s much better now. But I still think women writers need encouragement to be more ambitious and not to section off a part of the human experience as their own but to embrace the totality of it.”
Giving an audience a hint as to the long-awaited third novel of her trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, she confirmed it would be published next year and is a “triumph of deletion” after she honed her ability to avoid including all of her research.
– © The Daily Telegraph