Sunday, September 29, 2013

Why 2013 Will Be The Year Of The Woman Writer

This week's Sunday Guardian column.

There are still some months to go before the end of the year, but one thing seems certain: when it comes to English-language fiction, 2013 belongs to the woman writer.

Take the Man Booker shortlist. Four of the six titles are by women: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Eleanor Katton’s The Luminaries, Noviolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. It’s not that Booker shortlists haven’t featured the same number of women before, but it’s significant at a time when they’ve written so many notable novels.

Arguably one of the most talked about titles of the year is by another woman: Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. This novel of motorbikes, art and terrorism in the 1970s was rapturously received, even hailed as “the Great American Novel for the 21st century”. At the Edinburgh Book Festival in April, Colm Toibin, tongue somewhere near cheek, said that it was as if the author had announced, "if anyone thinks there is a 'male novel', and anyone thinks that women should write a different kind of novel, I've just arrived on a motorbike covered in leather and I am ready to eat you all".

The Flamethrowers was one of those on the National Book Awards Fiction longlist announced this month. Here, too, half of the ten titles are by women -- last year there was only one, by Louise Erdrich. This year, Kushner and Lahiri apart, there’s Alice McDermott, Elizabeth Graver and Joan Silber.

Silber’s Fools is a collection of six intricately linked short stories; in this genre too, one finds women at the fore. Karen Russell, for example, whose Swamplandia was a Pulitzer finalist last year and who’s just received a MacArthur ‘genius grant’, published Vampires in the Lemon Grove, a collection of stories that’s gothic, mythic and comic, sometimes all at the same time.  On the other side of the Atlantic, every single writer on the shortlist for the BBC Short Story Award is female, among them Sarah Hall and Lionel Shriver. 

To return to the novel, 12 of the 20 in Granta’s new ‘Best Under 40’ British novelists are women -- the first time since the inaugural list in 1983 that they're in the majority. Their backgrounds reflect the country’s diversity: from Kamila Shamsie and Tahmima Anam to Taiye Selasi and Helen Oyeyemi to Xiaolu Guo. The American National Book Foundation went one better in this year’s ‘5 Under 35’ awards: for the first time, all the five were women.

It’s heartening that in India, too, four of the six titles shortlisted for this year’s Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize are by women:  Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land, Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildings, Sonora Jha’s Foreign and Aranyani’s A Pleasant Kind of Heavy

Leave aside shortlists and awards as a yardstick, and you’ll still find riches. There’s Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which, like The Flamethrowers, starts in the 1970s and follows a group of teenagers into adulthood. There’s Charlotte Mendelsohn’s Almost English, with its engaging, quirky voice. There’s Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, about love and race in the 21st century. (And there are follow-ups by Donna Tartt, Curtis Sittenfield and Marisha Pessl which, though many felt didn’t match their previous work, displayed more virtuosity than most.) In detective fiction, one hears that the bestselling The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith was actually written by a woman.

In structure, style and subject, women have led the way. Perhaps it’s time to heed the words of novelist Peter Hobbs, one of the judges of the BBC prize: "We've got to the stage where an all-female list is not even worth mentioning. I don't really pay any attention to gender.” This raises a problem for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which did have a strong shortlist this year, comprising Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Zadie Smith’s NW, among others, being won by A.M. Homes’ dark suburban saga, May We Be Forgiven. It’s an award in danger of losing what sets it apart – for all the right reasons.

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