A.M. Homes Wins The Women’s Prize Amid Controversy
Author: Victoria Brownworth
June 13, 2013
The prize, formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction, was established in 1996 and is awarded to a female author of any nationality who has written a novel in English that has been published in the U.K. in the previous year. The winner receives £30,000 ($46,000) and a bronze sculpture called the Bessie, created by artist Grizel Niven. The long list is announced in March, with the shortlist announced in June. The final choice follows within a week’s time. The judges are “five leading women.”
I had been vacillating over who I wanted to win. The five finalists were Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies, Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior, Kate Atkinson, Life After Life, Zadie Smith, NW, Maria Semple, Where’s You Go, Bernadette and the winner, A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven.
Both Kingsolver and Smith had won in previous years. Mantel has won so many awards, The Women’s Prize may be the only one she doesn’t have and she was the heavy favorite to win for the second in her exciting and muscular historical trilogy. She previously won the Man Booker Prize in 2012 for Bring Up the Bodies.
Kate Atkinson is another heavy-hitter and a previous recipient of the Whitbread Prize. Semple has been a TV writer for two decades on major shows like Saturday Night Live, Arrested Development and Ellen. Her work often appears in the New Yorker.
Homes herself has won numerous awards–she’s been a Guggenheim recipient, she’s won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and she’s been a finalist for the National Book Award.
The Women’s Prize finalists range in age from Smith, 37 to Atkinson, 62. Smith, Atkinson and Mantel are English. Kingsolver, Semple and Homes are American.
I would have been happy with any one of these talented women winning. Their books are rich and diverse and utterly different from each other. None of these writers has a similar style, but each is exceptionally good. These writers have a political edge to their work, which adds a depth I find immensely compelling.
Homes’ work is especially charged with a sexual edginess. When her collection of short stories, The Safety of Objects, was published in 1990, David Leavitt wrote, “A.M. Homes’ provocative and funny and sometimes very sad takes on contemporary suburban life impressed me enormously. The more bizarre things get, the more impressed one is by A.M. Homes’ skills as a realist, a portraitist of contemporary life at its more perverse.”
Writing of Homes in 2007, in the Baltimore Sun, I said, “Some writers focus on the dark, rather than light, side of the human condition. Such writers achieve their narrative clarity from revealing the secrets and lies people tell themselves and each other, in exploring the hidden, rather than the obvious. Some of our greatest American fiction writers–F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Joyce Carol Oates–have attended to that milieu in which redemption is rarely, if ever, accessed and despair is often the end as well as the beginning. A.M. Homes has built her reputation on revisiting that same territory. As Cheever did in Falconer and Bullet Park, Homes entered suburbia in her novels and there found catastrophe. The claustrophobic nature of Homes’ writing unsettles even as it lures.”
Homes’ novel The End of Alice unnerved many critics as it took Bullet Park to an even darker level than Cheever reached, or than Joyce Carol Oates achieved in Them. Homes’ tale of an incarcerated pedophile and a teenaged co-ed was highly controversial–in part, I think, because she was revealing aspects of American culture and sexuality that no one wants to consider. Still Music for Torching actually feels like a must-read now, in our post-Columbine, post-Newtown society, as it details what happens when a boy goes into an elementary school with explosives strapped to his body. Homes is doing updated Dostoyevsky folded into Cheever here: she gives the reader a nuanced yet calculated peeling back of the seemingly serene suburban lifestyle to reveal the maggoty layers beneath. That she adds in a soupcon of dark humor laces everything with the Grand Guignol.
Homes has been tight-lipped about her personal life. In an interview with the Washington Post in 2007, she said, “I’ve dated men and I’ve dated women and there’s no more or less to it than that.” In subsequent interview with Diva magazine she said, “I am bisexual, but I wouldn’t necessarily define myself that way.”
Homes wrote for season two of The L Word and was a producer on season three of the hit series. She writes regularly for several national magazines, including The New Yorker where her 2004 essay on meeting the biological parents who gave her up for adoption mesmerized me.
That essay was expanded into a memoir, The Mistress’s Daughter. In my review in the Baltimore Sun I wrote, “Interviewers have tried to pigeonhole the obsessively private Homes, unsuccessfully. The Internet is rife with her terse, almost rude replies to reporters’ queries about the origin of her work and whether or not it is autobiographical. Thus, it was almost shocking when in 2004 she published a long piece in The New Yorker about those hitherto private origins.
“The Mistress’s Daughter includes and builds on that piece to form a memoir of sorts, an examination of the dark side of Homes’ own suburban family….There is no comfort whatsoever in this dark and deeply unsettling exploration of how Homes came to be. There are questions, there are answers, but there is no debriding of the wound of her loss. There is only more wound.”
It did not take The Women’s Prize for Fiction win to make me read Homes (nor any of the other finalists). Homes work delves into 21st century sexuality in ways few authors dare. It also allows her women characters the range of full agency–something disallowed in much of literary fiction.
But even as it didn’t take The Women’s Prize to bring these writers to my attention–I have been a fan of each–I hope it brings the attention of others to their work.
There’s been a great deal of snarkiness about this literary prize. “Why only women?” “Isn’t this sexism in reverse?” “Blah blah blah men are excluded, women are mean.”
It’s difficult not to heave a heavy sigh at these criticisms, leveled as they are despite The New Yorker, the country’s premiere arts magazine, having men-only issues. The recent VIDA report on women in the literary arts was crushing for female writers. It’s not that we didn’t know the deck was stacked–we just didn’t know how high and how wide.
The complaint about exclusion of men from The Women’s Prize neglects the kind of detail the VIDA report exposed: on average in every literary venue, women get a third of the space to men’s two-thirds. Just last week during BEA I read a long, outraged letter of resignation by E. Catherine Tobler. In it the writer explains her fury over the blatant sexism within the Science Fiction Writers Association and why she feels she must resign.
That letter, written May 31, became a rallying cry for women writers within the huge literary organization. Thus at almost the same time Homes was receiving her award in London, Jean Rabe was resigning as editor of the SFWA’s Bulletin. Sexism and misogyny were so rife in the publication–with female authors being made invisible–that Rabe was forced out.
The reality of how limited recognition of women in literature is, is evidenced everywhere. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction was first given in 1917. But between 1917 and 2013–96 years–only 28 women have won. In the entirety of the 1950s not a single woman won the award.
When one looks at the VIDA graphs, it’s just plain shocking. If nine men’s books get reviewed for every one by a woman (that’s the actual ratio at the Times Literary Supplement), how is women’s work to be noticed?
In the 17 years I was book critic for the Baltimore Sun, I reviewed countless books, but there were far more by men than women. Being a female reviewer is almost as rare as being reviewed is for a female author, so in my rarified position, I would request books by women as often as possible.
And how is women’s work addressed? One of Kate Atkinson’s chief complaints when she won the 1995 Whitbread Prize–beating out Salman Rushdie–was she was referred to in the press as “a single mother.” Not as the award-winning author.
Several key pieces on how cover art is skewed on women’s literary fiction to be “girly” is also instructive. Women buy nearly twice as many books as men, yet their perspective on books is either dismissed or discounted.
Not noted by VIDA–and I’m not sure how easy it would be to calculate–is how often a blurb from a female critic for a major publication is listed on a book solely as the publication without the author’s name. I was constantly finding quotes of mine on jacket copy, but more often than not the listing was simply, Baltimore Sun, rather than my name plus that of the publication. This was particularly true when the book’s author was male.
Thus my blurb on Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan included my name, but on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, my quote is there–but as the Baltimore Sun, only. My review of Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite moved the New York Times’ Arts Beat column, The Skim, to write, “Victoria A. Brownworth ingests Paul Theroux’s new collection of novellas, The Elephanta Suite, and delivers a heap of blurb-ready phrasings.” The piece went on to quote me at length. And sure enough, it was indeed a blurb-ready review: An extended quote appeared on the book. Sans my name, however–just that of the Sun.
Some may think these points are quibbles. But now as a publisher of books for queer kids and kids of color, I am hyper-aware of who gets what attention, and it’s actually shocking to see the gender bias, even though I know it’s there and I’ve experienced it as a writer, an editor, a critic and now as a publisher.
So to those who would denounce The Women’s Prize for Fiction as either unnecessary or discriminatory, it is neither. The finalists are amazing writers of depth and talent, but if they are shunted aside by reviewers and publications alike, how is the awards’ field level? If the only way to gain attention for women’s writing is to wave a bloody bronze statuette in the air and yell about it, so be it. Onward to The Women’s Prize 2014.