This year’s Booker Prize longlist did not deviate in many regards from what veteran bibliophiles and literary journalists have come to expect. As anticipated, Hilary Mantel made her third appearance on the longlist with her conclusion to her Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Although some have suggested that the rapturous reception that it received owed as much to hype as attainment, it would have been more surprising if Mantel had not found her place on a female-heavy longlist that featured eight debut novels, out of a total of thirteen writers recognised.
Most reaction to the announcement centred on the American-heavy bias that the longlist now has; nine of the writers are either from the US or have dual heritage there, and it looks as if the decision to open the prestigious award to all English-language writers in 2014 will ensure that its status as an international, rather than British, prize will continue, even if one imagines that Mantel remains the odds-on favourite to win. This led to some mild grumbling from literary critics, but it was generally seen as an exciting and interesting longlist, put together by an eclectic panel including novelist Lee Child, poet Lemn Sissay, critic Sameer Rahim and classicist Emily Wilson.
What led to rather greater outrage was a piece by the Times deputy literary editor James Marriott, who decided that it would be a good idea to write an opinion feature, to tie in with the longlist, that looked at the way in which the young male Oxbridge novelists who had dominated publishing for years had vanished, replaced almost exclusively by women. Marriott’s piece, which drew on interviews with the literary agents Clare Alexander and John Ash and the novelist Luke Brown, was thoughtful and perceptive, as his writing for the paper has consistently been.
His argument was not that female dominance in the field of the literary novelist was unfair or regrettable, nor that men from backgrounds such as himself – Marriott is an Oxford graduate – had been unfairly ignored in favour of women. Instead, he compared the male-heavy, even phallocentric, world of publishing in the Seventies and Eighties, which produced the likes of Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and Julian Barnes, with the more diverse and female-led scene today, which has seen writers as eclectic as Kiley Reid, Sally Rooney, Imogen Hermes Gowar and Oyinkan Braithwaite emerge over the past few years.
Marriott made the point that it would be extremely hard for a young male writer to begin a career in literary fiction today, given the lack of interest in hearing their voices; as one publisher he interviewed for the piece said, ‘it’s really, really hard” to publish literary fiction by young white men because “the culture doesn’t really want to hear from them”. There has not been a young (ie under 40) male writer shortlisted for the Booker Prize for the best part of a decade. While male writers can still thrive in the field of non-fiction – I was explicitly advised to pursue that avenue when I was starting out nearly a decade ago myself, and to give up any ideas of publishing literary fiction – it seems as if female dominance of the contemporary novel is here to stay, despite Marriott ending the article with a quote from Alexander, concluding ‘I’ve got to go and find the best men nobody’s ever heard of.’
It was a nuanced and extremely interesting feature, I thought, and so I tweeted a link to it with an approving comment. I expected that it might stir some lively debate, because Marriott had dared to stir the hornets’ nest of identity politics from the platform of a national paper, but it is a writer’s job to come up with thought-provoking takes on modern culture. And, crucially, the article was not some kind of misogynistic attack on the Rooneys and Reids of this world. Instead, it said explicitly something that I had suspected for some time, namely that contemporary literature is mainly read (and bought) by women and that it was inevitable that its practitioners would be female, as well. The age of young male novelists now seems to be over, because nobody wants to read them. The market adjusts accordingly.
Yet the trouble is that, in the echo chamber of social media, the argument behind Marriott’s piece was quickly distorted and caricatured. With most of those angrily denouncing him having not read the piece beyond the headlines and the first couple of paragraphs – as it was lurking behind the paywall of the Times, which is, of course, owned by the evil Rupert Murdoch and therefore beyond contempt – the unfortunate Marriott was firstly bombarded by insults and criticism, and then, at the time of writing, driven off Twitter altogether. One blogger’s reaction was to call the piece, which he had not read in full, ‘a pointless exercise in ageism and middlebrow whatiffery’, and concluded ‘Marriot’s [sic] article is behind a paywall so I don’t know whose views he solicited, but perhaps he should expand his circle of acquaintances, and broaden his reading horizons. Or just shut the fuck up.’
The blogger may have been interested by Luke Brown’s remark in the piece that ‘I do bristle at the current use of straight white male as an insult because I come from a place [Fleetwood in Lancashire] where nearly half the town are white men and they don’t really expect much from life. The idea that their voices should take a back seat is offensive to me because they’ve never really had a front seat.’
Few writers or editors, fearing similar treatment, were brave enough to defend Marriott publicly. The novelist Amanda Craig was a rare exception. She told me that ‘I thought it was a good, thoughtful piece, and made a perfectly valid point because at least one genuinely fine novel, James Scudamore’s English Monsters, is another one left off by Booker. I also think it disgraceful that a writer as good as Jude Cook has had to have Jacob’s Advice published by Unbound. It’s in nobody’s interest, least of all feminists like myself, if the literary novel becomes a female enclave, just as between 1980-2000 it was full of men preening. That’s not equality but a new inequality. I do worry that the new generation of men might be being punished for the egregious behaviour of those like Amis and Self by a critical climate that is so preoccupied by being woke that it may be oblivious to actual talent.’
I was explicitly advised to give up any ideas of publishing literary fiction
Another published novelist, himself from a working class background, commented to me, after I tweeted support for Marriott’s piece and subsequent dismay at his banishment, that ‘The last few years have been pretty disheartening and unpleasant, but we haven’t vanished, the industry has been as clear as crystal, we simply aren’t welcome. However, on the bright side, we are flocking to the indie scene, and it is exciting to see how that is evolving. So, onwards and upwards I guess.’
I hope that James Marriott will return to social media soon. Although I cannot claim an intimate friendship with him, I have enjoyed our occasional conversations on Twitter about literature and believe that thoughtful people like him have a great deal to offer a platform too often consumed by rage and contempt, something I’ve had my own run-ins with. Yet perhaps he is better off away from it. As he wrote, all too presciently, for the Times a fortnight ago, ‘I’ve been cancelled twice, though only very moderately. Perhaps “postponed” might be a better word. I can confirm that it is an unpleasant experience.’
These occasions were because he had written a negative review about an acclaimed novel (written by a woman, naturally) and as a result of a piece he had written about political correctness. The abuse was vitriolic and largely personal in nature. He concluded that ‘I’m lucky to have a staff job at a newspaper so I can write what I like but a lot of my friends are young freelance journalists and critics. Many of them avoid writing about things they believe in or giving their true opinion on books for fear of what the online backlash might do to their careers (and precarious finances). I know this because they’ve told me. Free speech is complicated and I’m not sure where I finally stand on the issue but that at least seems sad.’
And now, once again, he has material for another column: one that I am sure that he, like anyone else in his position, would rather not have to write, but which will keep being written, and needing to be written, until this shrieking madhouse that we are in shows some signs of finally closing its doors.
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