On Friday 7th March, a new list will enter the cultural domain, a list that will no doubt fuel heated debate and produce many a column inch over the coming weeks.
The list is for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as The Orange Prize) - the only book prize open just to women.
The book bloggersphere is already providing some interesting predictions of who’ll make the grade this year, with blogs such as The Writes of Woman and A Case for Books making excellent selections of the year’s literary highlights.
I couldn’t help notice, however, that the vast majority of women’s fiction bloggers aren’t engaged in the debate at all. It’s not just that they’re not compiling prediction lists; they’re not even talking about it (which, when you consider how much does get talked about on blogs and on Twitter, is bordering on an impressive - and disconcerting - silence). And given that your average blogger probably reads more books than your average professional reviewer (many bloggers manage in excess of 250 novels a year), the bloggers’ disinterest piqued my interest.
I spoke to one of the most popular and prolific bloggers of commercial women’s fiction, Victoria Stone, about about her seeming lack of interest in the prize:
They’re always books that ‘real’ women don’t pick up. They treat a lot of women’s fiction like it’s not well-written just because it’s not about ‘serious’ subjects. I just find that those of a serious subject get put a pedestal while those created for fun are mocked when they are both well written. So why shouldn't the more fun ones be in with a chance of winning?
The issue with the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize, I think, is that it’s a prize for women’s fiction, but only a particular brand of women’s fiction: namely, literary fiction. Which leaves an awful lot of novelists - and an awful lot of very good novels - out in the cold.
I don’t know what you look for in a great book, but I look for three things: I want to be moved (ideally to tears or laughter - or both); I want a book to be enlightening, either to teach me something I didn’t know before or to make me think about things in a different light; and I want the writing to be so well-crafted that I forget I’m reading, until a sentence comes along that’s so beautifully constructed that it takes my breath away.
There are lots of books which do that for me that I suspect won’t get a look-in on Friday’s long-list.
Some people have argued in the past that commercial fiction already stands the advantage of selling well, so prizes should be preserved for literary fiction to help boost sales. This is such a bogus argument it almost doesn’t warrant refuting. The fact is, most mid-list commercial fiction doesn't sell a hundred thousand copies. And prizes should be about excellence, not simply about opportunity, surely?
I suspect commercial fiction will also be a casualty of timing with regard to the Bailey’s Prize. The qualifying period is 1st April - 31st March, and given that some of the biggest commercial fiction titles are published in the first quarter of the year, they clearly stand less chance of being recognised: unless a book has a particularly brilliant publicist who’s secured blanket press coverage, many of the fantastic books published in the last six weeks will probably not even be on the radar of the judges, let alone their reading pile.
This is an interesting year for the Women’s Prize given that its the first year with Baileys in its title. It seems to me to be the perfect moment to take stock of the prize, to ask what - and who - it’s really for and to reposition it (like the drink it’s now named after) as something warm and inclusive, something feel-good and enjoyable. Certainly not something purely for the broadsheet elite.
I asked a group of women’s fiction bloggers who they’d like to see on the long-list this year. Popular choices were Miranda Dickinson’s Take a Look at Me Now (described by one blogger as having “changed my life”), Adele Parks’ Spare Brides (“stunning”) and Rowan Coleman’s The Memory Book (which, as the story of a woman - and her family - coming to terms with her early-onset Alzheimers, is hardly the stuff of fluffy escapism). They talked about wanting to see the likes of Lisa Jewell, Natalie Young and Lianne Moriaty on the list. Mostly, they just wanted to see the pool of long-listed books (and authors) widen to incorporate - and celebrate - women’s fiction in all its forms and genres.
We’ll find out in a few days’ time if any of the judges agree.
This blog first appeared on The Huffington Post