Music makers

The Women’s prize for fiction? It’s not just for women, you know. As the prize’s website is careful to explain, the “largest celebration of women’s creativity in the world” is a celebration to which “everyone” is invited: “We put exceptional quality literature from all over the world into the hands of male and female readers of all ages”. Unfortunately, the Women’s prize seems to have found a relatively few men willing to join in the celebration over the twenty-six years of its existence.

This much we learn from a short piece – published last Saturday in the much-reduced books pages of the Guardian – by the chair of this year’s judging panel, Mary Ann Sieghart. Drawing on the authority of her book The Authority Gap: Why women are still taken less seriously than menand what we can do about it, published last year, Ms Sieghart quotes some statistics: “On average, women will read roughly 50:50 books written by men and women; for men, the ratio is 80:20”. Men need to get their act together, as did the admirable Richard Curtis. Cited by Sieghart as the chief example of a reformed male reader, Curtis only needed a global pandemic and domestic incarceration during the first lockdown to start reading books by women. Apparently, it’s been an “amazing” two years, and he now presses “exceptional quality” copies of Olive Kitteridge (“the masterpiece”) into friends’ hands.

The puffery continues with a selection of “Male authors on their favorite book by a woman” – none of which is a Women’s prize winner. The newsreader Andrew Marr commends Ali Smith’s up-to-the-minute Seasonal Quartet. Salman Rushdie gives Virginia Woolf top marks for her “ability to enter profoundly into the interior life and thoughts of her characters”, and explains why that means men should read Mrs Dalloway: “we have interior lives too”. The ubiquitous Lee Child recommends Karin Slaughter (“just as fast, hard and tough as anything I write”). Ian McEwan gets points for taking the “triumfeminate” of Woolf, Jane Austen, George Eliot for granted, but then loses them for lazily reaching for a contemporary novel – We Had To Remove This Post by Hanna Bervoets, translated by Emma Rault – that he has already puffed on its front cover. We are not sure, meanwhile, that the popular appeal of To Kill a Mockingbirdas chosen by Sanjeev Bhaskar, was ever in doubt.

Amid the online guffawing that most of this prize-provoked posturing has inevitably prompted, it seems that only a couple of the contributors emerge with honor: Howard Jacobson, for one, who, in Leavisite mode, throws down the gauntlet in defense of Middlemarch (“No man or woman can be considered educated who hasn’t read it at least twice”); and the critic Chris Power, who has a critical challenge for those who like to chew on such things between the courses of their dinner parties (“show me a better writer of any gender in the UK today than Gwendoline Riley”).

There is little to be done, meanwhile, but reflect bemusedly on the Guardian‘s elision of books and novels; Sieghart’s research, it turns out, rests on an analysis of a few bestselling authors, such as Margaret Atwood and Agatha Christie. For a more sophisticated account, turn to Why Women Read Fiction (2019) by Helen Taylor. Male readers may learn much from Taylor’s introduction alone. The 80:20 ratio cited by Mary Ann Sieghart corresponds to that found in various surveys of the “UK, US and Canadian fiction markets”. In 2017, according to Nielsen Book Research, men bought more science fiction than women did (75:25). Women bought much more romance (92:8) and a little bit more “classic fiction” (52:48). We would start digging into the figures for non-fiction, did not the fear of inadvertently inspiring the creation of yet another prize somewhat dampen our curiosity.

Talking of which: on an evening of winning, dining and speechifying that the current British government would describe as a work event, the International Booker prize went to Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree and her translator, Daisy Rockwell. This is the first time the prize has been won by an author writing in Hindi, as has been widely noted. Less widely noted is the fact that most of the shortlisted books were translated by Americans, in keeping with a trend that afflicts the Booker prize itself. And least discussed of all is the full circle that has now been drawn to a completeness: Tomb of Sand is published by Tilted Axis, the excellent small press set up by the translator Deborah Smith with, er, her share of the prize money she received for translating 2016’s International Booker winner, The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Congratulations to all concerned.

Siegfried Sassoon and Edith Sitwell enjoyed a curious relationship. More distant in later years, they were close enough at one stage for a mutual friend, Edmund Gosse, to ask the former if he wanted to marry the latter. “I don’t think poets ought to marry one another”, Sassoon replied, perhaps with a certain other consideration in mind.

At auction earlier this week, courtesy of Woolley & Wallis and their latest sale of “Modern British & 20th Century Art”, were several of Sassoon’s artistic impressions of Sitwell – watercolor pictures, that is, with a hint of Beerbohmesque teasing about them. Their subjects included: “Miss Sitwell as Dick Whittington”, setting off formidably for London; “Louisa’s Dream (or The Palace Party)”, with reference to Sitwell’s middle name; and “We Are the Music Makers”, which crams her into a blessed circle with her brothers (see NB, November 26, 2021). Estimates ranged from the low to the middle hundreds. Also on sale were Sassoon’s impressions of contemporaries such as Violet Bonham Carter, WB Yeats and T.E. Lawrence.

Reproduced above is an example of the poet’s (other) art that brings together Edith Sitwell and Rudyard Kipling, two of his favorite writers – favorites for caricature, that is. The fine pencil caption reads: “Hymns Ancient & Modern.” (Sassoon elsewhere depicts Kipling strumming a lyre and facing off against Adolf Hitler.) We can only hope that this treasure has gone to a good home.

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