I’ve written before about how I find the idea of gendering literature a slightly bizarre, although instinctively interesting, concept. It is difficult not to see the label of ‘women’s writer’ as derogatory – and I would usually resist it for any author I admire. But for once, this month, I am happy to claim it. Because if Anne Tyler is the ultimate example of a ‘women’s writer,’ it’s an accolade indeed.
You’ve probably heard of Anne Tyler. The 70-year-old Baltimore-based author has written 19 novels, as well as two children’s books and numerous short stories. She has won several awards, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, has had two novels adapted for film and four for TV, and is championed both by critics (John Updike, Michiko Kakutani) and fellow writers (Eudora Wealty, Nick Hornby, Sebastian Faulks).
But you’re very unlikely to have heard from her. Notoriously private, she has not conducted a single face-to-face interview in 35 years and eschews all book tours, press junkets and lectures. That’s why it was a huge coup for Oxford Literary Festival to secure a public appearance last weekend, in which she was presented with the Sunday Times Award for Literary Excellence and discussed her new novel The Beginner’s Goodbye with chief reviewer Peter Kemp.
Domestic is the most common word used to describe Tyler’s particular brand of brilliance; she is, as the New Statesman’s Lisa Allardice puts it, “drawn to small scale domestic dramas…an exquisite chronicler of the everyday.” Her novels, in which she herself admits that “nothing really happens,” eschew complex plots or experiments with language and form for a focus on character and relationships. She excels in family politics and in creating set pieces where they are put under pressure and exposed; as Kemp reflected, she has a mean way with a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner.
In short, she ticks all the boxes for ‘female literature’.