The Man Booker longlist, released on Tuesday, features a number of young women and – more than ever before – they are writing about women. Sally Rooney, Daisy Johnson and Sophie Mackintosh were all still in their 20s when they wrote their nominated novels.
The Booker has stepped away from tradition more generally this year, with the longlist featuring only one previous winner (Michael Ondaatje of The English Patient, nominated this year for his novel Warlight). This has opened up space for young, less well-known authors to rise to the top, making for an exciting and refreshing list of nominees.
In recent years, the longlist gender divide has been fairly equal, and winners of the prize have included Eleanor Catton, who was 28 when she claimed the Booker in 2013. However, less common are women writing about women. In 2016, a year when the longlist featured two Davids, only one of the authors included was an emerging woman author writing about a female protagonist (Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen). The following year saw an improvement, with Fiona Mozley’s Elmet being joined by Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, two debut novels that focus on female characters. But with the presence of Rooney, Johnson and Mackintosh on this year’s 13 strong longlist, an impressive 23 per cent of the nominees fall into this category.
Sally Rooney rose quickly to prominence last year after the publication of her debut novel Conversations with Friends. It was her second novel Normal People (set to be published in September) that earned her a nomination for the Man Booker. Normal People is about a young woman navigating young love in a politicised context and, as the judges put it, “it transforms what might have been a flimsy subject into something that demands a lot of the reader”.
Daisy Johnson, the joint youngest author on the longlist, plays with the classical Oedipus myth in her longlisted novel Everything Under, which dissects identity, language and fate. The judges describe her as a “beguiling new voice” in literature and her story as “unexpected”. Like Rooney, Everything Under is Johnson’s second novel. Her first, Fen, a collection of short stories, was published in 2016.
Sophie Mackintosh, the third young woman author up for the prize, is nominated for her first novel The Water Cure. Like Johnson’s novel, The Water Cure is grounded in otherworldliness, following the story of three girls on a mythical island. Motherhood, patriarchy and family trauma are at the heart of Mackintosh’s debut. In the longlist announcement the judges praise her for the “tautness and tension of [her] writing.”
In the past, women’s writing has often been relegated to a niche interest, and a frivolous one at that. Meanwhile men’s writing tends to be seen as universal. In 1929, Virginia Woolf observed this phenomenon back in A Room of One’s Own: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.”
Nearly a century later, Sheila Heti, the author of Motherhood, echoed this sentiment. Discussing her 2018 novel about the decision whether or not to have children, she said in an interview: “[Motherhood is] such a huge, monumental, essence-of-life topic. We all have mothers. Why is this chick-lit?”
While the Man Booker longlist may give emerging women writing about women an exposure they have not enjoyed before, it is, of course, the longlist. The previous four winners of the Man Booker have been men. Indeed, in the last decade, only three women have won the prize (Hilary Mantel twice) and none of the novels featured lead female protagonists. This year could be different.
The Man Booker longlist in full:
Belinda Bauer – Snap (Bantam Press)
Anna Burns – Milkman (Faber & Faber)
Nick Drnaso – Sabrina (Granta Books)
Esi Edugyan – Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail)
Guy Gunaratne – In Our Mad And Furious City (Tinder Press)
Daisy Johnson – Everything Under (Jonathan Cape)
Rachel Kushner – The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape)
Sophie Mackintosh – The Water Cure (Hamish Hamilton)
Michael Ondaatje – Warlight (Jonathan Cape)
Richard Powers – The Overstory (William Heinemann)
Robin Robertson – The Long Take (Picador)
Sally Rooney – Normal People (Faber & Faber)
Donal Ryan – From A Low And Quiet Sea (Doubleday Ireland)