It’s Brilliant but is it Broad? The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2014

A few days ago I blogged about my hopes for this year’s Women’s Fiction Prize longlist: that it would be take the opportunity of a new sponsor (Baileys) to reposition itself as a broader, more inclusive  - dare I say it? - more populist prize. I was intrigued when one of the judges, Denise Mina, tweeted me to say that the longlist would delight me and that it was “a brilliant, broad spread of books”.

The list was announced late last night and it is, in many ways, brilliant: there are six debut novels among the twenty longlisted titles which is brilliantly encouraging not just for those six first-timers but for debut novelists everywhere. There’s a brilliant range of subject-matter from insightful, funny coming-of-age tales (Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English) to dark nineteenth century Icelandic murder stories (Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites). There’s a brilliant range of big-hitting titles (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things) juxtaposed with four or five books I suspect most of us have never heard of. 

All of this is fantastic and exactly what prizes should do: celebrate some of the industry’s most high-profile names while simultaneously bringing new writers out of the wings to star on the literary stage.

But my hope that the newly branded prize might make at least a nod to the world of commercial fiction wasn’t to be. It is, in essence, a very literary list: the longlist reads like a women-only Booker Prize, with even hotly tipped, clever commercial titles such such as Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard or Rachel Joyce's Perfect failing to make an appearance. As such, I suspect the list - and interest in the prize generally - will appeal to the same audience it always has done. Which is disappointing as there seemed to be a genuine opportunity this year with a new sponsor on board to widen the editorial scope of the prize and, consequently, to broaden the reach of engagement with it at the same time.

The 2014 Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize longlist is, as Denise Mina promised, brilliant. And in one sense -  the range of subject-matter and tone among the titles - it is also broad. It just doesn’t have the kind of breadth - that heady, eclectic mix of literary and commercial, of high-end and popular - that many of us had been hoping for.

Perhaps it’s time for a new prize altogether.

This blog appeared on The Huffington Post