On Chesil Beach and the Booker Prize

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.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

12 responses to “On Chesil Beach and the Booker Prize

  1. Cam

    At some points in this book, I wondered how it didn’t differ from a romance novel in some ways. Of course, I think the writing is better than in most romance novels (I don’t read them, so maybe that is too much of a stereotype, but it is certainly their reputation), but the novel sort of strikes me as a highbrow Harlequin romance in a parallel universe turned on its ear – instead of hot sex and wonderous exciting love & happy ever after, it’s horrible sex, boredom and unhappy ever after.

    McEwan’s observations about people is what makes his writing outstanding, regardless of the subject. But as I’ve commented elsewhere (why didn’t I just post on this?!), I think he phoned in the ending. Regardless of writing technique, that wouldn’t have been tolerated if written by most any other writer.

  2. I like your idea for a book about a wedding night gone wrong! Perhaps there is a novel in your future after all? ;)

  3. verbivore

    I think you’ve asked an excellent question here – would On Chesil Beach have made the Booker list if it had been written by a woman? I wonder (and I haven’t read the book yet either so I am terrible unqualified to say)….

  4. I am interested to see who wins as well. I’ve only read the McEwan from the shortlist, though I did read a couple of other titles from the longlist. I’ve also wondered if the novel would have been so acclaimed if a woman had written it. Would it have gotten such notice? I think there are some authors that are just so well known for their literary accomplishments that they are bound to get noticed good or bad. I think there is still loads of gender stereotyping when it comes to books. I see it with what critics say/review–I even see it with the people around me who are readers. At least it is not as blatant as it used to be.

  5. Wedding night gone wrong? I was just having this discussion with a Japanese woman who is planning to marry a Mexican acquaintance. Her best friend may miss the wedding because she is due to deliver around the same time. Everyone always worries so much about trying to create the perfect wedding. Oh the stress!

    Inevitably the weddings where something goes awry are the ones that get remembered. I recall the one where the lover of two wedding party members showed up and someone in a tux ended out in the swimming pool. Or the one where a ring bearer couldn’t resist the cake, unfortunately it hadn’t yet been cut.

    My recommendation was for her friend to come; after all, who would forget the wedding if her water broke mid-ceremony?

    Anyhow, I am looking forward to reading your award-winning, culturally-significant work about a wedding night gone bad. I believe it is possible.

  6. I think most of the protests about the book length was that one of the Booker criteria is for “novel-length” books and people thought it was more of a novella. Something like that. I do find any hoopla about most prominent authors pretty boring too unless they spit on critics.

  7. Cam — yes, highbrow Harlequin it is. But I wonder if we don’t unfairly look down on romance novels — yes, many are poorly written, but the ones that aren’t — why not take them seriously? I agree with you about the ending.

    Stefanie — ah, there’s not a novel in my future after all, because the wedding night gone wrong is the plot McEwan is using! I have little creativity myself, alas. I probably should have clarified that I was referring to McEwan’s plot in my post — oops :)

    Verbivore — I suspect it wouldn’t have been chosen, probably because it wouldn’t have gotten as much attention, and issues about its length and maybe the weakness of the ending.

    Danielle — yes, that’s it — some authors get noticed no matter what. I do think McEwan wrote a great book here, but in spite of its length and subject matter, he’s getting attention for it he might not otherwise.

    Bikkuri — I’m sure you’re right about weddings — I haven’t attended any exciting, memorable ones, alas — I mean, besides my own, which was memorable for good reasons, not because some disaster happened!

    Imani — oh, that makes sense; I can see why people would call it a novella. Although such distinctions don’t make a whole lot of sense to me — I mean, they are so arbitrary.

  8. I agree about “phoning in the ending.” I really enjoyed the book until the ending. I just didn’t find it believable. I guess I just wanted more.

  9. The ending does kind of lift you out of the atmosphere of the book, doesn’t it?

  10. McEwan is a real seel for me, admittedly.
    I’m like blinded goat…. point me to the “Mc” aisle in the bookstore, I’ll be OK. And I positively LOVED On Chesil’s Beach… wept at re-readings of it.
    If McEwan republished my own phone book, I’d probably buy it. So yes, such devotion can blind a reader to other great authors out there. [I too, have not read even one other of the Booker nominees.]
    McEwan [at least for me] is so fail-safe though. The name itself, defies gravity for me, at this point.
    Overly fair to him.
    Unfair to others, probably equally worthy of a voice.

  11. SELL.
    He is a real “SELL” to me!
    I’m like “a” blinded goat.
    And like “a” guy that cannot type, after four beer, or so.

  12. Cipriano, I’ve read or listened to a good number of McEwan books, and although I don’t think they are all equally good (Amsterdam didn’t really do much for me), I’ve enjoyed every one of them. So I understand your devotion!

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