I love her books, I think she’s brilliant, but I also keep wondering how long it will be before someone snipes at Hilary Mantel. Two Man Booker Prize wins is a tremendous rarity; only Peter Carey of Australia and J.M. Coetzee of South Africa have done it before. That leaves Mantel as the only woman and indeed the only Brit to have done it, and the triumphal press narrative is out in force. Someone’s got to be salivating to puncture the balloon. I’m putting my money on Martin Amis, who seems remarkably certain that every book that has ever won a prize is definitely “boring.”
Though perhaps, if they don’t, it’s a self-serving maneuver. After all, Mantel’s success comes at a time when, in American literary circles particularly, there’s a lot of chatter about the role of gender in literary acclaim. As such, Mantel is likely to become the next Zadie Smith or Alice Munro, by which I mean the next writer that editors and writers whip out, in the face of pretty devastating statistics, to prove that there is No Sexism or Racism in the Hallowed Halls of Literature, no way, no how.
The most wonderful thing about Mantel is that we can at least expect her to have a good, candid attitude about it. Though she is now best known for “weighty” historical novels, the kind of thing prizes like the Booker adore, not so long ago Mantel was as subject to accusations of being a lightweight as any other female writer. “You would think I would be too old to be shocked by the hypocrisy of the world, but the number of people who oozed up to me [on her first triumphant Booker night, in 2009] was incredible, people who I know hate my work and hate me, and haven’t been reluctant to say so in print or on air,” Mantel told The Telegraph in 2010. “And then I think, ‘You fat fool! Do you think I don’t know?’ And then you realise what a gigantic game we are all playing.”
Mantel’s light-heartedness about the “gigantic game” contrasts with the endless parade of novelists who often look about ten seconds and a tumbler of whiskey from bellowing “I’m the King of the World!” when they finally get their due. Rushdie just released an entire memoir written in the third person, in a gesture that felt less like a literary maneuver than a blushing assumption of the mantle of the royal “we.” And every time the Nobel rolls around, some male novelist shakes his head and raises his glass to Philip Roth, feeling for largely unarticulated reasons that Roth simply “deserves” the prize. Among this year’s disappointed: Roth’s biographer Blake Bailey, who offered the reasoned, mature, “Mo Yan my ass. #rothscrewedagain”