On Youth, Woolf, and The Man Booker Prize

It began with her face in marble mosaic, walked upon by thousands each day, in the entrance hall of The National Gallery. Next was Durga Chew-Bose’s title of her essay collection, lifted from the her Diaries. And then it was that twitter account – Vita & Virgina Bot – serving tweet sized samples from the letters between the two.

It was time to re-read Virginia Woolf.

My first foray, as you might say, into the writing of Woolf began, as I can imagine identical to many female liberal arts students, in my first year of university. I was just seventeen and drowning in the canon. Burned by Chaucer (whose expert always wore a Hawaiian shirts and only showed porno versions of The Canterbury Tales – soft lit 70’s adaptions, with big hair and big eyelashes and flesh everywhere – in the clock tower lecture room, dusty and old and destined for dying disciplines), and overwhelmed by Shakespeare’s Histories (I don’t give a fuck about all those men killing one another, just let me laze in his Tragedies and Comedies), I found refuge in the modernists – but was too young, and too isolated to appreciate it all.

But now, now I can read Virginia. I’m older and smarter and I’ve read so much more than my seventeen year old self. So I reread Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, and Three Guineas, and her diaries, and Orlando. And of course, I read A Room of One’s Own.

A room of one’s own – that gloriously radical idea (first voiced to a room of women in the very city I live in) was that in order to write, a woman must be in possession of money and a room of her own. Literature abounds in academic circles and in the circles of the interwebs about how vital space and money is for creativity to flourish. A Room of One’s Own is forever at the heart of these discussions, and will remain that way for decades to come. But it’s also about the writing of women being taken seriously. She speaks of critics deciding “This is an important book… because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room”. It’s still an issue we debate now: women read men, and women read women, but men don’t read women; books by women authors are statistically sold for less; in non-fiction, women are not seen as ‘experts’, and are therefore not published; and the big prizes are going to men.

Unlike every other list, this year’s Man Booker Longlist is one of female voices. And not just female authors, but characters too. In the past we’d seen female authors on the list, and even win, but they were writing the tales of men. It’s as if the world only validated women voices if they lent themselves to the narratives of men. White men of course. But not this year. There’s Esi Edugyan, Belinda Bauer, Anna Burns, Sabrina, and Rachel Kushner. And there’s also the voices of young women, women who are not yet thirty – Daisy Johnson, Sally Rooney, and Sophie Mackintosh – writing about young women.

Daisy Johnson’s debut novel Everything Under is a terrifying and raw retelling of the Oedipus myth. Its protagonist Gretel is a lexicographer who is attempting to unravel the mystery of her mother who abandoned her in her teens. Then there’s Sally Rooney’s Normal People which I read in one morning. I didn’t savour it, or draw it out to last longer. I binged, and have since felt heavy and sick with its beauty and heartbreak. And finally, there’s The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh. So undeniably aesthetic in its prose that I lived in that world of salt and water and sand for weeks after finishing it.

These young women have answered Woolf’s cry to “write all kinds of books”. Despite being three works of fiction, they are “books of travel and adventure, and research and scholarship, and history and biography, and criticism and philosophy and science”. These books are refreshing antidotes to the diet of monotony that Woolf speaks of in her reading.

My narcissistic self (at its peak when it comes to opinions on books) thinks that one of these three should win. Of course its an entirely unreasonable opinion as I’ve not read the others*, but said narcissistic self believes I do not need to, because I’ve already read the best (don’t @ me). But beyond the best, my desire for one of them to win stems from my desire for recognition – just as I longed for Eleanor Catton, with her beautiful tome of a novel The Luminaries, to win in 2013. A voice from Aotearoa New Zealand was recognised worldwide when she won; it made me feel like I was recognised too (I hadn’t read any of the other longlisted novels, so of course her win secured my reading narcissism that remains to this day). As a young woman I want a voice like my own to win.

Reading narcissism aside, these books are ones that are worthy of the prize. The power of their prose, the depth of their ideas, and their representation of young women is something the world needs to read. And through winning, one of these young women can have a room of her own. She will have “money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.”

*I have read one other – Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. It’s like Northern Lights meets The Underground Railroad: a slave’s plight for freedom and creativity takes him from Barbados to the Arctic. There’s a hot air balloon too! It would be a worthy winner.


2 thoughts on “On Youth, Woolf, and The Man Booker Prize

  1. Your writing is entrancing. I’m so glad that I have stumbled across your blog. I am also a devoted Woolf lover- which is your favourite of her works?


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