Criteria: The Women’s Prize for Fiction is awarded annually to the best full-length novel, in English, by a woman published in the UK in the preceding year.
The purpose of the Women’s Prize for Fiction has been clear since its founding in 1996: to ensure that outstanding works of fiction by female authors receive due honours and public recognition. And yet, as the June 5th announcement of the winning novel approaches, we find ourselves embarking on a perennial discussion: ‘What is the point of a women’s prize for fiction?’
It is a question worth asking. We must first acknowledge that sexism persists in the literary world – it always has. Sexism in its current manifestation influences how literature by women is selected, marketed, and critically received. If you are interested in exploring this further, I would recommend longlisted Women’s Prize author Deborah Copaken Kogan‘s recent article on how she struggled to be taken seriously throughout her career, as well Maureen Johnson‘s recent experimentation with gendered book covers and a read through the VIDA Count for 2012. If you still don’t believe me, then you should probably just start from scratch with A Room of One’s Own.
The founders saw the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) as a direct response to problems of sexism in the literary establishment. The idea originally arose in 1991, when the Man Booker Prize shortlist of that year consisted of all male writers. Kate Mosse, a co-founder and chair of the prize, describes its nascence in idealistic, almost mythic terms: “In January 1992, a diverse group of journalists, reviewers, agents, publishers, librarians, booksellers – male and female – gathered together in a flat in London… After some hours and several bottles of wine, the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize – one which would celebrate women’s creativity, one that would be truly international (nationality or country of residence being no bar to eligibility), one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives as integral to the Prize – was born. A prize that would be fun!”
The final remark feels out of place, when you think about it. ‘Fun’ is an oddly frivolous term to describe a prize with such noble aims as countering extant sexism in the literary world, a sorely needed endeavour. The idea that the prize should be ‘fun’ only diminishes its goals. Of course, Mosse was probably just attempting to set the prize apart from other established prizes, but I do not think it needs this post-script disclaimer. Already one of the most prestigious literary awards in the country, the prize aims to, and does, celebrate ‘excellence, originality and accessibility’ in female writers. It should do so because it needs to, not because of whimsy.
Nevertheless, the prize has met harsh criticism in the past. A.S. Byatt declared that ‘such a prize was never needed’, while Germaine Greer predicted there would soon be a prize for ‘writers with red hair’. I agree with them up to a point. The prize does seem unnecessarily exclusive; for example, is an all female judging panel really necessary? But I would not go so far as to claim that a prize awarded only to women has no value. Indeed, a women’s prize for fiction has the potential to lift unrecognised, unappreciated writers out of relative obscurity. But then, the question we should be asking becomes, ‘Do we need this women’s prize for fiction?’
The Women’s Prize in Fiction 2013 Shortlist:
Predictions: Here at Literary Taco, we are placing our odds on Mantel. She has already scooped up awards for Bring Up the Bodies and we think this trend will continue – however it is worth noting that Wolf Hall did not win in 2010, peeped at the post by Barbara Kingsolver, who is on the shortlist this year. (In fact, both Kingsolver and Smith are past winners who have the chance to become double winners this year.) I think A.M. Homes might also have a particularly strong chance in securing the win partly because May We Be Forgiven is so different from Bring Up the Bodies , whilst JG is banking on Zadie Smith or Kate Atkinson.
If we value a women’s prize for its ability to ameliorate the sexism women authors face, then I am not sure the Women’s Prize for Fiction is very useful. The prize selects the best novel, so unsurprisingly the shortlist for this year is full of accomplished authors; the shortlist is rather predictable. Hilary Mantel will probably need another trophy cabinet if she wins. Zadie Smith, likewise, is one of the most recognised and lauded writers writing. American author A.M. Homes has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts. Kingsolver boasts a Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner; Atkinson, a Whitbread. Maria Semple is the only relatively new face on the list. In other words, most of the authors who are nominated do not seem to need the prestige that the prize will bring. While I congratulate the shortlisted authors for their well-deserved success, I doubt that lavishing further praises on them will do much to address sexism at its roots.
A women’s prize for fiction has great potential. Imagine what a first novel prize for women could accomplish: by calling attention to writers who are ignored, trivialised, or dismissed by their publishers and critics, a well funded prize could provide an invaluable platform both financially and critically. Instead, we have a prize in which six first time novelists are whittled away from the longlist. Sexism in the literary world is definitely still a problem, but I doubt that separatism is the best method of tackling it.
The 2013 longlist included Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, The Innocents by Francesca Segal amonst others. Mark Brown writes an article from the Guardian commenting on the ‘staggeringly strong’ shortlist.
Criticism of this year’s shortlist has been harshly directed onto Hilary Mantel and Zadie Smith, in what is termed ‘tall poppy syndrome’: the British disdain to continued success. A Guardian interview with Miranda Richardson, current chair of the judging panel, explores why she hates the ‘sneering attitude to success’. Gaby Wood’s article, from the Telegraph, explores the nominees in light of the criticism whilst the Guardian‘s Stephen Moss questions whether it would ‘have been fairer to give someone else a chance‘.