I’m writing this the night before the Booker winner will be announced, and I’m curious to see if McEwan will win for On Chesil Beach. I haven’t read any of the other books on the short list, so I can’t compare, but I do think McEwan probably shouldn’t win. (See Eve’s Alexandria for a very good run-down of the possibilities.) It’s a very good book, don’t get me wrong, but it would be a pretty boring choice — McEwan is so popular and well-known.
People have argued that he shouldn’t win because it’s such a short and slight book, and I don’t know how I feel about this argument. A part of me agrees, and another part of me thinks, what’s wrong with short? And do I really agree that it’s slight? I’m not sure books have to have large, grand themes and to say something about politics and history or whatever, to be good books. Why can’t somebody write a really excellent book about a wedding night gone wrong? And who’s to say a book about a wedding night gone wrong couldn’t have something significant to say about history and culture? And even if it doesn’t, does that matter? Does every great work of literature have to deal with “large” or “broad” or “grand”?
I’m reminded of Jonathan Coe’s essay on Virago Modern Classics and women writers where he argues that On Chesil Beach is a book dealing with stereotypically women’s subjects — emotions, love, and sex — but is, of course, written by a man and therefore is an example of how writers are undermining gender stereotypes. Here’s what Coe says:
Most of the new writers who have broken through to critical acclaim and big readerships in recent years have been women: Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Lionel Shriver, Marina Lewycka, Sarah Waters and Susanna Clarke, among others. And these writers are, for the most part, writing big, historically and politically engaged novels, not voyaging in “an exclusively emotional and sexual sea” – a phrase that might rather be applied (accurately, but non-pejoratively) to a novel like Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. In 2007, it’s Graham Swift who writes a novel focused entirely on the domestic and familial (Tomorrow), while writers such as Rose Tremain and Marina Lewycka examine the plight of low-paid migrant workers in the modern British economy. The old clichés about what distinguishes male writing from female writing no longer stand up to scrutiny.
I wonder, though, what would happen to On Chesil Beach if it were written by a woman. Would it get dismissed by readers, maybe even by more readers than at present, for being minor and slight? Would it be seen as women’s fiction and not of interest to men? Would it get on the Booker prize short list? Or, suppose it were written by someone, male or female, less well-known and popular than McEwan — would it get much attention?
I guess I’d like to think, along with Coe, that our understanding of what constitutes “male” and “female” writing is changing, but I wonder if it’s really true. I rather doubt it.
I haven’t yet written exactly what I thought of the book itself; perhaps I’ll save that for another post.