What is the appeal of a Hilary Mantel novel?
Hilary Mantel is the first woman and first British writer to win the Man Booker Prize twice, but does the ‘historical fiction’ tag do her books a disservice?
LAST YEAR, when the Man Booker Prize was mauled by accusations of “readability”, people thought it was going the route of reality TV. Was this lauded and high-minded book award being pulled into the current of cultural dumbing down? “No!” came the resounding reply from this year’s judges in awarding the prize to Hilary Mantel for her Thomas Cromwell novel Bring Up the Bodies.
Not only is Mantel the first woman and first British writer to win the prize twice; it’s also the first win for a sequel.
Every year I read all six shortlisted titles and seek out people to discuss them with. This year it transpired that most readers I know had gravitated towards the independent publishers on the list or the other big hitter, Will Self. Hardly anyone had read Mantel. Were people put off by the fact that it’s historical fiction?
Penny Hart, a producer with RTÉ Radio 1’s arts show Arena, is a huge admirer of Mantel and says the historical tag does her a disservice. “Mantel is definitely a literary writer, and readers are often put off by historical fiction, thinking the genre is quite dense. Bring Up the Bodies is extremely well written, and I fell in love with it.”
Every year, when the Booker is awarded, there is a certain amount of ranting about who did or didn’t win, and for myriad reasons. One Guardian writer bemoaned the fact that Mantel was “the biggest-selling author on the shortlist, from the biggest publishing conglomerate”. He went on to point out that her publisher, 4th Estate, is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Should being well known, shifting units and being vaguely connected to a media oligarch preclude a writer from winning? It might not have been the best book on the shortlist, but there is no hair-splitting about Mantel’s ability as a writer.
“For me her appeal is her ability to understand human psychology and her gift at telling a story,” says the journalist and broadcaster Edel Coffey. “She happens to be a literary writer but tells a story like one of the best commercial writers out there, and that’s not the kind of historical fiction we’re used to. It’s a gripping story, and, while it may be set in the 1500s, the themes are still relevant today – we still have infidelity, back-stabbing and hunger for power – so people relate to it.”
The Man Booker Prize certainly whips up sales: the pre- and postwin sales figures for both Anne Enright and John Banville are fascinating, but they were Irish writers, beloved in their own land. Who buys Mantel’s books and will they sell here?
Steve Boylan of Eason believes so. “Since Mantel’s first Booker win, interest in her books in Ireland has undoubtedly grown, although Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies remain her biggest sellers. Wolf Hall has now sold in excess of 20,000 copies in the Irish market, and I would expect interest in her backlist to continue to grow due to this second win.”
Traditionally more women than men read fiction, especially when it comes to books by women, and attendance at public book events in Ireland is dominated by women and older audiences. There is a sense that Mantel’s historical fiction is embraced by bookclubs, but one friend says her group “baulked” at Wolf Hall when it was chosen, and sighed at the size of the book. (It got mostly positive reviews on the night.)
“I don’t think Mantel is a gender-specific writer,” says Hart. “I bought it for my mother, but I think men might be interested in the central male character of Cromwell.”
Boylan says many readers who are not traditional fans of historical fiction took a chance and bought Wolf Hall. “As a result her audience crosses gender and age lines more than other authors in the historical-fiction genre might.”
Coffey urges people to read Mantel’s work on one basis only: that she is a gifted writer, albeit one helped by the traction that two Booker wins bring. “She’s an incredible writer – a literary writer – and because she’s written so many books that are all so different, she has learned her craft. Bring Up the Bodies really lures you in: you inhabit the world and feel like you’re there.”
Mantel is working on the final book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, and next year the first two books will run as a six-part adaptation for BBC Two.