What does a writer have to do to win a major literary prize?
Hilary Mantell would be a good person to answer that, since she’s won what is perhaps the most prestigious prize any writer can aspire to – the Booker. And, what’s more, she’s won it twice (for Wolf Hall and for its sequel, Bring up the Bodies) which is an amazing achievement.
I’d really like to know how she did it. After all, I’d quite like to win a major writing competition myself. Maybe not the Booker (a man’s got to know his limitations) but something with some serious prestige, and hopefully a nice bit of prize money.
So I read Wolf Hall with an extra element of interest. I would have been interested anyway – it’s historical fiction, which I enjoy, and it centres around a particularly fascinating period of English history. But I wondered if, in addition, I might be able to recognise that particular element which made it outstanding.
The first and most obvious thing I noticed is that it is written entirely in the present tense.
Looking at other reviews (there are nearly fifteen hundred of them on Amazon UK alone) it seems that this caused some people problems. Flicking through the one star comments (and it might say something negative about my character, but I was a little encouraged to see that even a Booker winner gets these!) many found the style confusing and difficult to follow. I can see their point. There are times (for example) when it’s easy to lose track of the conversation, since ‘he’ usually refers to the main character, Thomas Cromwell – but not always.
Yet though I understand why it might put some readers off, I didn’t share their experience. There were one or two occasions when I had to backtrack a bit to be sure who had said what, but it never even approached the point where I would have given up reading it. On the contrary, the unusual approach was apparent in the first sentence, and after that I was so absorbed in the story that it barely registered.
I was very impressed (especially thinking about it afterwards) by Mantell’s ability to keep it going throughout the book. To take such an unusual approach, and to maintain it consistently for the entire novel – actually for two novels since the sequel is written in the same way – struck me as quite a remarkable feat.
But the really interesting question is, why? Why did Mantell choose to write in this fashion? What did using the present tense achieve that a more conventional approach would not have?
I would love to be able to ask her that myself. Since I can’t, I can only guess.
Does it perhaps give a greater sense of immediacy? Does it help draw the reader into the events, by making them seem to be happening not hundreds of years ago, but now? Is it about creating an ‘atmosphere’?
If so, I’m not sure how effective or necessary it is. Not having read any of Mantell’s other writing, I don’t know if she regularly uses such devices in her work. But she is clearly a talented and accomplished writer.
Her use of words, her dialogue and description and visual imagery is brilliant. Her research seems impeccable (not that I’m an expert) and she does not merely describe life in Tudor times, she shares it. Through her writing, you can understand how politics and personality and desire and faith and so many other factors blended together to shape some of the most crucial events of history. And the background of the time and the culture is brought smoothly but vividly into the narrative as well, not as something separate but almost as another character in the story.
Given all this, would it really have made a difference if she had written in a different, perhaps more accessible style?
My feeling is that it wouldn’t, she would have still produced a brilliant novel. Of course, I could be wrong about that – perhaps the style made more contribution than I realised. And it’s certainly true that while Wolf Hall might not have been a better book had it been written in (for example) the past tense, it would certainly have been a different book.
And is that, perhaps, a reason for writing in this way? To make Wolf Hall not merely good, but different? More noticeable, more distinctive, standing out from other novels of the genre by the way it’s written.
No disrespect to Mantell if that was indeed her purpose. After all, it worked, and worked superbly. Maybe that’s what is needed to win the Booker – to do something differently, and to make it work.
If I were forced to make a criticism, it would be about the pace. It’s good, but seemed to me to lack variation. OK, it’s not a thriller. But because things move on at much the same speed for the entire novel, no one event stands out. There is a great deal to capture interest, to wonder at and be intrigued by, but nothing that generates tension, nothing that gave me the feeling of events moving towards a crisis point. To be sure, it is the first of two books, and perhaps the sequel (which I have only read an extract from) has more of a climatic feeling. But taking it on its own merits, Wolf Hall did seem a little flat towards the end.
On the other hand, if I missed an element of tension, there is a very subtle sense of menace which is incorporated in the title. Wolf Hall is a place that is never actually visited in the book. It is mentioned only a few times, and has the context of scandalous events. But it’s the home of the Seymour family. And whilst the book revolves around Anne Boleyn’s intrigues to become Queen, history records that Jane Seymour would be her successor. Knowing that gives the place a significance to the reader that it did not have at the time. Using it as the title may be one of the most subtle and clever things Mantell has done.
It’s certainly a book worth reading – if the style doesn’t put you off. I don’t know if it’s got me any closer to writing my own prize winner, though!