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”
Believing that an ascent to the top of the cultural mountain is the result of a stable category called “merit”, and out of which the rightful king (it’s always a king) can be “screwed,” is an article of faith among a certain class of men, I’ve found. Powerful ones, I think, is what I’m getting at. Not unlike the members of a certain kind of conservative politician, people in power come to believe they’ve only made it to where they are in life because they are “talented,” and “worked hard.”
They become so married to this notion that a certain kind of arrogance can come to color their work. Complacency, self-righteousness, a sense of personal infallibility: all of these many be anathema to the novelist. In the Anglo-American world writers have the comfort of at least avoiding any real guillotine. Any night of the long knives has print as its only weapon, and words aren’t always quite as cutting as you’d hope. The building up and chopping down to size are important, of course, but they aren’t quite the items of momentous import that writers would like them to be. One woman winning a Booker, even two, is not the panacea to a world where women’s writing is always presumed to be a bit lesser.
And indeed Mantel’s insight on the “gigantic game” could be chalked up, bluntly, to being a woman, or, as she sometimes does, to being fat. The outsider perspective does give one a skeptic’s eye when there’s chest-beating afoot. But her late career, the one that’s garnering the accolades isn’t, after all, about outsiders. It’s about the people who have a hand on the lever. But they never, in Mantel’s universe If there is no other lesson you learn from writing about a man like Thomas Cromwell, or the French revolutionaries that populated A Place of Greater Safety. It’s that time at the top is necessarily delimited. And also that the knife in your back might come from another hand, but that frequently, you fall upon it yourself. Power corrupts, and not always in the way you’d expect.
Michelle Dean blogs about culture for The Nation. Check our her previous post on Andrew Goldman’s sexist tweets.
An earlier version of this post inaccurately identified Thomas Cromwell as "Oliver Cromwell."