The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction) announced its inaugural longlist of 20 titles on March 7, the day preceding International Women’s Day. Overseen by five female judges, prominent figures in Media and Publishing, the globally-recognised literary prize seeks to honour the absolute best in full-length fiction written in the English language by women around the world. An admirable and necessary endeavour when gender inequality still makes headlines.
And yet, the Prize has not been without criticism. Strangely enough, given that it was developed from the realisation that the Booker Prize shortlist of 1991 included not a single female author (and that female nominees had numbered a total of only 10% until then), the award has repeatedly been called ‘sexist’ by both female and male writers. Nevertheless, the WPFF holds integral equality and internationality in literature.
After all, International Women’s Day dates back to Chicago 1908 and is still celebrated today as an annual event of social and political awareness for the equality of humans of the homogametic sex; why not a literary prize in recognition of the creative accomplishments of the same?
Sponsored by Orange until 2012, the prestigious award launched in 1996 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London and is co-founded by writer Kate Mosse and literary agent Jane Gregory. The first winner was Helen Dunmore, for “A Spell of Winter”. The explicit title of Women’s Prize for Fiction was adopted last year, when A. M. Holmes’s “May We Be Forgiven” won, and then Baileys stepped forth as sponsor.
Given the Prize’s educational and literacy initiatives, Helen Fraser’s appointment as a judge is apt. Chief Executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust and former Managing Director of Penguin Books UK, her promotion of women in education and the workplace is central to the ethos of the WPFF. Indeed, it is a pertinent contemporary global issue. Meanwhile, BBC broadcaster and journalist Sophie Raworth’s occupation and University of Cambridge Professor Mary Beard’s exemplary work in Classical scholarship show just how far women can succeed in historically male-dominated sectors. The inclusion of writers Denise Mina and Caitlin Moran on the board allows for the necessary appraisal of women’s writing by actual writers.
Despite reservations, the Prize is considered part of a ‘trinity’ alongside the Man Booker (which longlister Eleanor Catton won last year for her vast “The Luminaries”) and the Costa Book Awards. The shortlist will be announced in June and the winner quickly afterwards.
No woman has won more than once but, of the 20 longlisters, two have won before: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007, “Half of a Yellow Sun”) and Suzanne Berne (1999, “A Crime in the Neighborhood”). The latter’s “The Dogs of Littlefield” is nominated this year, along with the former’s “Americanah”. Margaret Atwood has been nominated several times now; “MaddAddam” is her fourteenth novel. Others include Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” and Elmear McBride’s “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing”.
May the result prove that celebrating specifically female authorship is nothing ‘half-formed’.