We have known that women could write since Sappho invented love poetry 2600 years ago. Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot could also write -- not to mention Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing and all the other scribbling women through the ages. So why are we so surprised that four women took the top literary prizes this year? Herta Muller the Nobel, Hillary Mantel the Man Booker, Elizabeth Strout the Pulitzer and Marilynne Robinson the Orange.
Because women have been treated dismissively in literary culture ever since Eve was blamed for saying yes to the serpent. So we are amazed that these prize committees allowed that a vagina and excellent prose may co-exist.
Have you ever been on a prize committee? I have. You are asked to do the impossible -- compare talents that are intrinsically incomparable. In the end, something comes along to decide the impossible choice. It may be politics. The author went to jail for her or his beliefs. The author may have been banned in a fascist country. The author has a club foot or cleft palate or is of the right, previously wrong, color or gender. Because the task of comparing the incomparable is so impossible, other factors inevitably come into play.
It seems we are in a period of renewed feminism. Don't worry, these periods tend to pass rather quickly.
Alas! a woman that attempts the pen,
Such an intruder on the rights of men. . .
wrote Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea in the 18th century. And her cry has been fairly typical of women writers trying to describe the absurd prejudices arrayed against us. The almighty pen equals the almighty penis and how dare we attempt to filch that all-important organ? Perhaps women are getting all the prizes this year because the literary novel itself lacks readers. Who has the time to read fiction in a world of screaming blogs, bleating cell phones and omnipresent TV screens?
When women multiply in a profession and are welcomed, it's clear that profession has lost clout -- witness the secondary status of medical doctors in Soviet Russia. So we may be allowed in as prizewinners just as literary fiction itself is succumbing to entropy. I don't for a moment believe my gender is winning prizes because equality has triumphed at last.
And let's look at the books that win. Hillary Mantel's Wolf Hall features a male protagonist -- just as most of Annie Proulx's books do. No problem -- women can write about men and men can write about women. But prize committees are often happier when women grant men the importance in fiction they seek in life.
Of course I'm delighted that women are winning prizes. But I refuse to accept that fact uncritically as proof we've gained perfect equality. Read these books carefully and ask yourself if they challenge our notions of male-female relations or question them. You decide.
It is usually those books that question the status quo that are attacked (Leaves of Grass, Lady Chatterley's Lover, The Second Sex, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary) while books that celebrate bourgeois values are praised. We never see this at the time because excellence tends to emerge through the winnowing process of the decades. And the books that are forgotten are so forgotten that this paradox seldom emerges.
I challenge you to look at the prize winners of the last century and decide if these are books that will last. Will any books last?
Students often email me that they "love my quotes." Do they even know the quotes come from entities called "books"? Who knows?
I'd advise those who seek the holy grail of immortality to cultivate being pity and aphoristic -- like Oscar Wilde or La Rochefoucauld. In the future, we all may be known by our quotes -- if we are known at all.