Women are hardly marginalised in literary culture, so why the obligatory war cry from the Orange chair? Plus, can Vintage be trusted with the classics?by Jason Cowley / February 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Too much girl power?
Muriel Gray, the spiky-haired ex-presenter of Channel 4’s cult rock show The Tube, is the chair of the judges of the 2007 Orange prize for women’s fiction. She’s been in combative form, as usual. “I can’t stress enough how important this prize has become to British writing, particularly as women’s voices seem to be becoming ever more marginalised in other key areas of society,” she said.
I’m not quite sure what she means by this, but whether or not women are becoming more marginalised generally, the opposite is happening in the world of letters, in this country at least—which is all for the good. For a start, women have their own lucrative fiction prize, the winner of which is guaranteed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Women are beginning to dominate the bestseller lists as well, helped in no small part by Channel 4’s Richard and Judy book club. The husband and wife team’s selections are guaranteed bestsellers; the top three selling new paperbacks last year, all novels—Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, Victoria Hislop’s The Island, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian—were endorsed by Richard and Judy. “One obvious way in which their book club has reshaped the top 100 is in making its upper reaches female-dominated,” wrote John Dugdale in an excellent commentary on the year’s bestsellers in the Guardian. “If you strip out titles not published in 2006, for example, eight of the top ten novels are by women.”
There is a certain literary snobbery directed at Richard and Judy, which is unfair, perhaps, when you consider how they have transformed our reading culture, as indeed did the Orange prize. Their choices are often interesting and challenging, even if the subjects of the novels they favour—and they are invariably novels—can be sensational or issue-driven: one of their selections for 2007, Lori Lansen’s The Girls, is narrated by a conjoined twin. “What we are looking for in a book,” says one of the researchers on the show, “is talkability.” And why not? After all, Richard and Judy is an afternoon talk show, no more or less. “The book club has nailed the lie that daytime TV is for ‘dimwits’ and ‘bored housewives,'” Richard Madeley has said. “We demonstrated that our viewers are intelligent people who relish the opportunity to read and discuss books.” And so they do.
One of the bleak truths about cultural life in contemporary Britain is that most men scarcely read books at all, beyond the odd high-tech concept thriller and the opinions of the boorish Jeremy Clarkson; women bought 69 per cent of all general fiction titles sold last year in Britain, according to Book Marketing Limited. Some of the loneliest and most anxious people I know are full-time male literary novelists who have published three or four novels without ever having found a readership. If anyone is marginalised, it is these chaps.
I admire the Orange prize and what it has achieved; its recent shortlists and winners have been mostly very good. But let’s not pretend the circumstances are the same as they were when the prize was established, in 1996, in reaction to the perceived male bias of the Booker. The prize is here and established; it continues to do good work. A sign of its ultimate maturity will be when the new chair of judges does not feel the need to issue a war cry to accompany her appointment.
A far from Vintage Hemingway
Random House is preparing to reinvigorate its Vintage Classics list as it seeks to challenge the power and dominance of Penguin, which has long published the great works with care and integrity. The conglomerate has much work to do, as I discovered just before Christmas when I bought an edition of Ernest Hemingway stories, published by Vintage Classics as The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I was searching in particular for the story “Big Two-Hearted River,” which was originally published as part of In Our Time (1925), a collection of short stories, essays and narrative sketches.
The story features Nick Adams—a Hemingway story regular who serves as his alter ego. Here, recently returned from the first world war, Nick sets off on a fishing expedition to Seney, a once-thriving lumber town in northern Michigan that now resembles nothing so much as a burnt-out battlefield. He is seeking solace in nature. He sets up camp and then, early the next morning, wades out into the river in search of trout. The prose is spare and precise; this is a story of exclusion, of what is being left out, and unsaid—such as what Nick experienced in wartime, when he was wounded.
“Big Two-Hearted River” is the closing story of In Our Time. If you read the book from the start, you will know all about Nick’s wartime experiences and why the simple pleasures of fishing and the return to Seney mean so much to him. Unfortunately, The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a carelessly, enragingly, published book; there is no introduction, nothing to place these randomly selected stories, some featuring Nick Adams, in their proper context. “Big Two-Hearted River” closes the book, as it did In Our Time, but I wonder how many people buying this edition and reading the story for the first time would have any idea of its subtext or why it is considered one of the finest in the language. Published as it is, without editorial commentary or even endnotes, it is impossible to be read as anything more than a fastidiously detailed story about fishing.
Random House is a distinguished group, led by one of the finest publishers in the business, Gail Rebuck. But for now, it seems, only Penguin can be trusted with our literary heritage.