A nerdy pocket of the Internet was abuzz yesterday, as the results came down that Hilary Mantel‘s Bring Up The Bodies had taken home the prestigious Man Booker Prize. The award, given to the best English-language novel written by one of the Queen’s subjects, is notable for its ungainly name and for the fanfare that surrounds it. A Pulitzer winner is given a pat on the back, a fat check, and a huge stack of “Pulitzer!” stickers to put on their paperbacks. But win the Man Booker Prize, the BBC tells us, and £1 million in sales is guaranteed. This is the second time Mantel has bagged the award—her first came in 2009, for Wolf Hall—so it seems her place in the Pantheon—as well as her bank balance—is guaranteed. And so I ask seriously: Why in hell haven’t I heard of her?
Not only am I not illiterate, I consider myself to be the kind of man who keeps up with this sort of thing. I read the arts section of the local paper. I talk to friends about books. I am in possession of a library card. And yet, the name Hilary Mantel never penetrated my brain until yesterday. In my ignorance, I have been happy.
That one of the best-regarded novelists of our time has such a low profile is partly the fault of the catastrophic failure that is the book publicity industry. But even if Mantel were getting the mainstream attention she deserves, my eyes would probably skip past her name. For I am a trashhead, and when it comes to smart books, I just don’t care.
I read almost exclusively non-fiction, thrillers and classic adventure stories. This habit began as a rebellion against life as an English major, and stuck long after I was given my not-terribly-valuable degree. Once escapist literature becomes all you read, it stops being an escape. It’s like a permanent vacation, or life in Southern California—pleasant, but unreal. Two months ago, I took a break from my steady diet of Rex Stout mysteries and Horatio Hornblower seafaring novels—read them, they’re brilliant—to read Thomas McGuane’s Ninety-Two In The Shade. I’d thought it was about boats—I was wrong.
Halfway through that peculiar, funny book, I realized why I was having such trouble getting a grip on it. “This is an actual novel,” I told a friend of mine. “It’s been a while since I read a book that was trying to do something.” It was uncomfortable, using my brain again, but in the end it proved a worthwhile exercise—something I might like to try a little more of.
But is Hilary Mantel the regimen for me? My addiction to trashy lit has given me some standards which are unalterable. I don’t like purple prose. I don’t like main characters who feel lots of feelings. And I think a novelist should have to apply for a special dispensation from the Nobel Committee to publish a book that’s longer than 250 pages. Mantel’s pair of prizewinners are the first in a trilogy about Thomas More and Henry VIII—doorstops that weigh in at over 600 pages.
Historical fiction, unless it’s got to do with strong-willed Englishman on boats, just ain’t for me. If I want more brain exercise, I’ll turn to McGuane, or a literary schlock-writer like the inestimable James Crumley, whose work the New York Times has called “breathtakingly violent.” But, my personal tastes aside, a 600 pager about Henry VIII is genre fiction—as escapist as Harry Potter. The Man Booker Prize committee may have a contract that requires “prestigious” to be used every time they’re written about, but I know their secret. They’re trashheads, just like you and me.