Literary Prizes and Contemporary Women’s Writing: An Investigation through Interviews

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Turner, Nick
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In 2011, I conducted research on the Orange Prize for Fiction. Now called the Baileys Prize, it was first awarded in 1996, the first literary prize run and judged solely by women and open only to women writers. It was in part a response to the seemingly male bias of Booker Prize judging panels – in their awards and their gender balance in panels. I was particularly interested in the prize’s remit, which includes the words ‘originality’, ‘excellence’ and ‘accessibility’. The research was stimulated by a (female) academic and novelist I know who felt that the last word potentially dumbed down women’s writing, criticising the non-specialist nature of some of the panels and the inclusion of ‘lighter’ fiction on the longlists. In short, the prize was not doing the question of women’s writing being taken seriously any favours – in fact the reverse. I discussed the prize, what it was felt to have achieved, and the contentious issue of accessibility being equated with dumbing down with many novelists, critics and former judges. Sir Simon Jenkins remained against the Prize, seeing it as form of sexism that was unnecessary in a field where women led; Kate Mosse, bestselling novelist and co-founder of the Prize naturally defended it, quoting the remaining need for the Prize in a culture that still worked against women writers’ success. Her passion was infectious, and convinced me the Prize has helped advance women’s writing. Margaret Drabble expressed uneasiness about an all-woman prize; A.S. Byatt felt it ghettoized women writers. Anne Fine said she had moved from an argument against the prize to doubting her earlier views. Interestingly, then, some leading women writers and critics are uncomfortable with the prize. There again, as the interviews below show, it rightly has a great deal of support. It has now been running for twenty years; its 2014 winner, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, a stream-of-consciousness novel reflecting on abuse and rape in parts, is hardly ‘accessible’. In 2015, the prize was won by Ali Smith for her ‘experimental’ novel How to be Both. Smith is often called one of Britain’s leading novelists: with Hilary Mantel shortlisted previously, the Prize is certainly spotlighting the most important contemporary women writers. The three most substantial interviews are below. Louise Doughty's novel Whatever You Love was short-listed for the Costa award for fiction in 2010 and long-listed for the Orange Prize 2011. The highly successful Apple Tree Yard was selected as a Richard & Judy Book Choice in the spring of 2014. She judged; Alex Clark is a journalist who was the first female editor of Granta, who judged the Orange Award for New Writers in 2005. Doughty and Clark were both judges of the Booker Prize in 2008. Linda Grant is a British novelist whose book When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000. These interviews were conducted via email.
Alex Clark, Linda Grant, Literary prizes, Louise Doughty, Orange/Baileys Prize, Women writers