Writing A new plot
Some of the literary awards women won and shortlists they dominated in 2013
The just passed year saw women swarm literary honours lists and bag top management posts like never before. But bizarrely, they also lost an unwanted preserve to a dead, male philosopher
If anyone still doubted women writers’ knack for the knockout phrase, proof came from one of the 10 female winners who swamped the Queensland Literary Awards’ 11 categories last year.
“You could’ve knocked me over with a tampon,” was how Melissa Lucashenko worded her surprise at nailing the Fiction Book category for her comic novel Mullumbimby.
Except that it was a typhoon that knocked male writers off their perch in 2013 — in the English-speaking world, anyway.
From Australia to Britain to North America, the “sisters were doin’ it for themselves” — to adapt the feisty lyrics of Annie Lennox — making the prizes and nominations at literature awards their own. (See chart)
It all started in October with the biggest laurel of all: the Nobel for Canadian “master of the contemporary short story” Alice Munro, 82. When, five days later, New Zealand’s Eleanor Catton — born the year Lennox wrote those lines — became the youngest Booker winner at 28 for her 832-page The Luminaries, to some it may have looked like a delightful coincidence.
Or perhaps not. Four of the six Booker nominees had been women, after all.
Then, on November 26, an all-women shortlist for the Costa Novel Awards was announced — for the first time in the history of the 42-year-old prize, which honours authors based in Britain and Ireland for high literary merit combined with enjoyable reading. It was time for the women to ask serious questions.
Dame Antonia Byatt, a member of the Folio Prize Academy, an international group of mainly authors and critics that will publish its first shortlist in February, told The Times, London, that there was no longer a need for women-only awards like the Bailey’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize).
“Have women suddenly taken to writing better novels? I think possibly they have,” she said.
“One thing it proves is that we don’t need a women’s prize. The only reason for having a prize for one sex was that women weren’t getting fair treatment. That was the case when the Orange Prize started. When I was judging Best of British Young Novelists, we were heavily canted towards men.”
Her remarks suggested a change of mood in less than seven weeks.
Munro, told she was only the 13th woman to win the Literature Nobel, had said: “Can this be possible? It seems dreadful there’s only 13 of us.... I’m very glad that I got on and we as women got on.”
Even as recently as last April, Wikipedia had in an ironical lapse of judgement started to move women authors from the category “American Novelists” to that of “American Women Novelists”, the implied sexism provoking an outraged article in The New York Times by novelist Amanda Filipacchi.
“We all know that women have always written as well as men,” Chiki Sarkar, publisher, Penguin India, told The Telegraph. “It’s great that this year’s bounties confirm this fact.”
Byatt suggested that one reason for the trend might be that women no longer feel compelled to write about women.
“You got this period in the 1970s when women started writing about women. Now we have a generation who don’t feel they have to do that. They can just get on with writing great novels,” The Times quoted her.
Namita Gokhale, author and co-director of Jaipur Literature Festival, agreed partially.
“All great writers rise above their sex and gender to an intuitive androgyny. Yet women novelists, and their readers, do often read, write and respond differently in nuance and cadence,” she said.
Gillian Rudd, reader in English literature at the University of Liverpool, however, feels “it’s a little early to be declaring the establishment of female dominance”.
In an article on theconversation.com, she disagreed with Byatt’s call for an end to women-only awards, asking: “Why does an all-female list still draw comment? Doesn’t such comment betray surprise and a lingering assumption that best equals male?
“As long as female-only lists provoke comment, snide or laudatory; as long as people even notice that a list is made up of women authors only; so long the value of the women-only prize continues. Stirring it up is what they are for.”
In the driving seat
Cars and beautiful women, the ultimate male fantasy, set a pace in 2013 that left the men playing catch-up.
When General Motors named Mary Barra, 52, its new chief executive on December 10, it was history shifting gears. She was the first woman to head a big automaker, freeing the industry from the “clutch” of “car guys” with petrol coursing through their veins.
Joining Barra in breaching male fortresses in 2013 were a sisterhood of Indians.
|Avani Saglani Davda, 34, appointed Tata Starbucks CEO in September 2012, opened 30 stores in India this past year. She is the youngest CEO in the $100bn Tata group.
The stock markets were once thought a man’s world, peopled with massive egos who got their daily highs from testosterone-filled bets. But in April, Chitra Ramakrishna, 50, became MD and CEO of the National Stock Exchange, the first Indian woman to head a bourse.
Banking scored a double. On October 7, Calcutta-born Arundhati Bhattacharya, 57, became the State Bank of India’s first woman chairperson, and the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company in India.
How hard was it? “One lesson I have learnt is that things are never as difficult as they seem,” suggested Bhattacharya who, surprisingly for a banker, studied English literature.
But a bank for women — and managed by women? That too happened when the Bharatiya Mahila Bank was launched on November 19, coinciding with Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary, with Usha Ananthasubramanian, 55, as its CMD.
Her challenge: to show the idea behind arguably the world’s only bank with a gender focus is commercially viable. After all, studies have shown that women rarely default on loans or miss repayment schedules.
|(Above) Marissa Mayer; (top) Mary Barra
But until now, the auto industry’s efforts to attract more women had failed despite women making 80 per cent of all car-buying decisions, reported The Times, London.
“I’ve been in the (automobile) industry for 30 years and never thought I would see this day,” the newspaper quoted market analyst Michelle Krebs on Barra’s elevation. Krebs said Barra, an engineer with two teenage children, was known as decisive and tough: “She’s had to be.”
But women don’t always have to mimic male “aggro” to get ahead, Ananthasubramanian suggested. She believes that banking is all about taking risks and women are more practical and moderate risk takers. “Men try to dominate; women orchestrate.”
They sometimes help clean up the mess men make, too. In 1993, just after Harshad Mehta’s capers battered domestic markets, Ramakrishna had joined a five-member team handpicked by then IDBI chairman S.S. Nadkarni to introduce screen-based trading in India and muffle the error-prone, cacophonic open outcry system prevalent on Dalal Street and Lyons Range.
She helped build the NSE from scratch, with its reputation for clean transactions. It’s the biggest stock exchange in the country today. Bhattacharya outlined the challenge for women: “You have to prove over and over again that you are better than the best. Often, people wonder if she can give the time required at work, given her responsibilities at home.”
Many women, Bhattacharya said, pull back, feeling they may not be up to the task. That’s exactly what another woman boss’s book, which created a storm on its March 2013 release, says they shouldn’t.
In Lean In, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, 44, urged women to be more aggressive rather than “pulling back when they should be leaning in”.
Her claim that high-achieving women are unfairly branded “bossy” while their male counterparts are merely called “the boss” inspired a Pantene ad portraying the biased characterisation of women at work.
Marissa Mayer, 38, learnt it first-hand. Appointed Yahoo CEO in 2012, she caused grumbles in February 2013 when she banned staff from working from home.
But soon, many workers were saying the “friends, feedback, drama and comedy” that office provided helped them to be happy and productive.
In 2013, Mayer became the first woman listed No. 1 on Fortune magazine’s annual list of the top 40 business stars under 40 years.
dberg, who expressed support for Mayer throughout, would approve: she claims that governments and economies would be less likely to be in crisis if more women held positions of power.
Additional reporting by
our business bureau
You Kant be serious
In a year female writers grabbed a literary precinct by the shirt collar, a philosopher notorious for his forbidding prose forayed into a province women had willy-nilly monopolised.
When a full-blooded young man shot another in a late-night Russian bar in mid-September, the common object of affection they were fighting over was not a femme fatale but long-dead Immanuel Kant. Luckily, it was a rubber bullet and the victim has survived.
“They were working out which of them was a
bigger fan of the said philosopher,” police said.
While women may not mind the loss of the preserve in a season of protests against unwanted attention from assault-minded men, the Rumble at Rostov-on-Don has provided professional hair-splitters an opportunity to bend their brains around the latest philosophical paradox.
For, as a potential subject of a crime of passion, the odds would have normally been stacked against the Prussian author of the Critique of Pure Reason, known as a bit of a dry stick, who died aged 80 in 1804 after a rather boring life revolutionising philosophy.
The lifelong bachelor never left his hometown of Konigsberg, now Russia’s westernmost city of Kaliningrad, and was such a prisoner of routine that townsfolk set their watches by his daily walks.
A rash of subtle theories have therefore been propounded and, in the time-honoured tradition of philosophy, met with equally subtle objections:
lIt all resulted from the pronunciation of the philosopher’s surname being misconstrued as an insult (a thesis that initially made rapid headway on German-hating British campuses).
The catch: As an astute logician pointed out, it probably doesn’t work in Russian.
● Could Friedrich Nietzsche, who dubbed Kant an “idiot” and a “scarecrow”, have had a hand? Perhaps the shooter was a closet admirer of the “live dangerously” dictum?
The catch: Fiery Friedrich advocated “philosophising with a hammer” — he would have scorned rubber bullets.
● Oh, the unbearable Nothingness of Being, sighed the existentialists. It must have been a tormented, Dostoevsky-loving Russian soul with a pale face and trembling lips who suffered an attack of nerves and couldn’t keep his finger from twitching over the trigger.
The catch: A self-loathing Dostoevsky hero would sooner have shot himself. Or clubbed his father. Or axed an old woman. Or knifed his dark-eyed Nastasya. Definitely not this.
l“Among educated Russians, including those who drink, classical literature and philosophy are sometimes debated in casual social settings, the way sports often are in Western countries,” pronounced the venerable New York Times.
So that’s what it was, then. A soulful Russia’s proclamation of arty superiority over barbaric Britain, where pub brawls seldom rise above topics like the comparative merits of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, unless it’s Monty Panesar urinating on bouncers’ heads.
The catch: Soulful? Arty? Have you forgotten that Roman Abramovich owns Chelsea?
● It was a PR exercise to give Kant an image makeover before Hollywood makes a movie on him with Bruce Willis doing to the philosopher what Robert Downey Jr — regrettably, according to some critics — has done to Sherlock Holmes.
The catch: Catch, what catch? That must be it. Hasn’t a recent biography claimed that the young Kant was a partygoer who enjoyed wine, snazzy clothes and female company and sometimes drank so much he couldn’t find his way home?
P.S. Reports said the shooter might be jailed for up to 15 years, which he may have to spend digesting Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.
P.P.S. Perhaps it was just the beer. After all, drinking seems to have made even Kant temporarily lose his reason.
The “world’s sexiest woman”, Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, was hailed as a woman of substance when she revealed she had
undergone a double mastectomy because she carried a genetic risk of breast cancer. This was seen not just as a boost for breast cancer awareness but also as an inspiration for high-risk women who shrink from double mastectomy because of the stigma. “I don’t feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity,” Jolie, 38, said.
...ER, ‘HIGH’ POINT
Woman of substance? The problem for “domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson, 53, was that the substance was cocaine. This after photos showed the TV personality and food writer having her throat squeezed by her then husband, art collector Charles Saatchi, at a London restaurant. Nigella said she had taken cocaine a few times but was not an addict. Senior entertainment industry figures said her latest troubles would not affect Nigella’s career. “Don’t write obituaries” for her, said PR expert Mark Borkowski.