Hilary Mantel, the Man Booker Prize, and Historical Fiction

Some good coverage of Hilary Mantel winning the Man Booker Prize for Bring Up The Bodies, an event that made history for her being both the first woman and the first Briton to win the prize twice, and also for this being the first sequel to be a winner.

* BBC coverage of the prize ceremony.

* Guardian coverage of her winning the prize for a second time.

* an interview in the Telegraph, including a video interview plus video of Mantel introducing the book herself.

* The Dead Are Real – a profile in the New Yorker.

* Plus also from the Guardian a fascinating piece of personal writing on her experience of past-life regression (I do love how she is so matter of fact about ghosts in her writing: what we don’t know).

* And read an extract from the opening here.

I’ve not read the whole of Mantel’s oeuvre, but I thought Wolf Hall was fabulous, and her memoir Giving Up The Ghost is gritty and haunting, and shows she can write powerfully when she is more economical too. She’s a writer with range, who does not want to be pigeonholed, and so she shouldn’t be. When you read her, you’re aware of a significant intelligence at play behind the words.

And what words. Her syntax is sinewy and shapely, and can be thoughtful and provocative in its content. Look at the opening of Bring Up The Bodies:

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.

These sentences are beautifully balanced in their variety, full of texture and reference and measurement and energy: the possibilities of simple repetitions, elemental, a cheeky bit of alliteration, a cadence. A voice. The wit, the ‘effervescent, omnivorous mischief’ mentioned in one of the Telegraph articles above.

It’s interesting too that she has stuck with Fourth Estate (and they with her) from her early books when they were an independent publisher to its iteration as an imprint of HarperCollins. Consistency is possible in publishing.

A couple of other things, though.

First, I’m never sure of the value of pronoucements about ‘the greatest modern English prose writer’. (Not least, what about the Americans, and the Irish and Scots and Indians and Australians and Canadians and the Finns writing in English and … ?) (And especially the Americans?) (And let’s not forget some of the translators, too: where do they fit in?)

And then note how various commentaters give Mantel credit for revitalising the historical novel, which is said to have had an ‘unstable’ reputation; that was the New Yorker, where I also found among its feeds (though now – sensibly – it seems to have been removed from the article itself): ‘Historical fiction used to be a humble genre. Hilary Mantel has found a way to make it exciting and relevant.’

I guess such voices want to make a distinction between what they might call bodice-rippers and literary fiction, though I might suggest that that is often a fine line (see: Sarah Waters). Mostly, though, I wonder what other writers currently active in their own fictional treatments of historical matter think of the idea that historical fiction was in need of excitement, relevance, and a reboot? Sarah Waters, of course, and how about Emma Donoghue, Margaret Atwood, Kate Grenville, Salman Rushdie, Michelle Lovric, John Banville … ? I could go on, and I am sure you’ll have your own to add to the list of writers with an ongoing devotion to fictional explorations of the past.

Sometimes, in such coverage it feels as if journalists (or maybe their headline writers) are using half-cooked hooks to manufacture a story, and in doing so either getting a bit hysterical, or revealing their own ignorance. (But: do they even care?)

And: though the discussion created by the Man Booker Prize can’t be discounted, do we always have to place a premium on prizes, on being the best, the lifesaver of the genre? Some writing has a quieter possibility. Sometimes the writing that lurks away can be just as interesting, as valuable.

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