Actress Miranda Richardson, chair of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, has hit out at the vitriol aimed at Hilary Mantel’s on-going awards success, calling it a “hideous” British trait.
Mantel is chasing an unprecedented hat-trick of major literary awards for her novel Bring Up the Bodies, after she was named on the six-strong shortlist for the Women’s Prize yesterday.
On a heavyweight shortlist she is up against two former winners in the form of Zadie Smith, for her novel NW, and Barbara Kingsolver for Flight Behaviour. No novelist has ever won the prize twice.
Richardson said she was “thrilled” Mantel had made the shortlist after fearing there would be dissent among the judges “because of the hoo-ha” around the author.
Critics had called on the judges at the Costa Awards in January to give a less celebrated author a chance after Mantel had won the Man Booker Prize for Bring Up the Bodies and its predecessor Wolf Hall.
Yet, in her Costa acceptance speech in January, Mantel was defiant, saying she was “not going to apologise” for her success.
Richardson and her fellow judges of the Women’s Prize – formerly known as the Orange Prize – were aware of the sentiment.
“You get negative comments, with people saying: “Hasn’t she won enough?” the chair of the judging panel said. “It’s not about that. If it’s a great book, a great story, brilliantly told. This is about excellence and originality. Why wouldn’t she be there?”
She talked of “tall poppy syndrome” in relation to Mantel, hearing “particularly in Britain, ‘you’ve already had too much, you can’t have any more. Go away and die now’.” The actress added it was a particularly British trait: “I think it’s hideous.”
Kate Atkinson has also been shortlisted this year for Life After Life alongside AM Homes for her book May We Be Forgiven. The list is rounded out by Maria Semple for Where’d You Go, Bernadette. John de Falbe, bookseller at John Sandoe, said: “This is a good solid list by serious writers.”
Novelist Kate Mosse, who set up the prize, called it a “real powerhouse” shortlist adding “There are some amazing novels this year from amazing writers.”
Following Mantel’s success, and this week’s publication of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, which had more women than men for the first time, Mosse said: “We are part of a changing publishing world. Everyone has played a different part in that. It’s a very encouraging landscape; the sun is on the hills, rather than the clouds.”
Asked whether the prize was still relevant, given the success of female authors in the past year, Mosse said: “The prize is to celebrate excellent writing by women. Why would you stop? It has been unparalleled in its success in promoting writers’ careers and works of excellence from all over the world.”