Fairs | August 2010 | Steve Alburty

Can Women Write Intellectually Challenging Novels?

The highly-respected English novelist A.S. Byatt says that women who write industrial-strength fiction are treated by critics as oddities, "like a dog standing on its hind legs."

Byatt said this while firmly standing on the only two legs she has as she addressed the Edinburgh international book festival this week, accepting the James Tait Black memorial prize for her novel, "The Children's Book." Previous recipients of this literary award, Britain's oldest, include D.H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.
Byatt has often expressed her frustration at the very existence of the Orange Prize, which is awarded exclusively to women.

"The Orange prize is a sexist prize," she has said. "You couldn't found a prize for male writers. The Orange prize assumes there is a feminine subject matter—which I don't believe in. It's honourable to believe that—there are fine critics and writers who do—but I don't."

Byatt won the Man Booker Prize in 1990 for "Possession." (In this context,it should be noted that "Man" stands for "Man Group plc," an investment firm which sponsors the award.)

Quite coincidentally, the James Tait Black award for biography went to Martin Stannard for his book on Muriel Spark, surely one of the great writers of the late last-century; and Byatt's "competition" on the short-list for this year's James Tait Black award included Anita Brookner for "Strangers" and Hilary Mantel for "Wolf Hall."

Byatt is obviously not making an argument about quantity. The list of female writers who write or have written novels with deep themes which require perspication is long: Woolf, Murdoch, Munro, Atwood, Lessing, Marguerite Yourcenar, etc.

Byatt's central argument posits whether there exists such a thing as a "feminine" novel, the themes of which are completely unique solely to the concerns of women. Certainly, a glance through the history of the New York Times bestseller list demonstrates that hundreds of authors appeal to a select group, whether they be black, gay, or are willing to open their throats to vampires.

The struggle of women writers extends as far back as Mary Ann Evans, who, to ensure she was taken seriously, had to disguise her pen in the pants of the pseudonymic George Eliot.

Yes, yes, yes. Men are from Mars and women from Venus. But let us all hope that great literature occupies a solar system which makes no planetary distinctions.