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In the world of books, awards and the nominees carry as much weight as those in the entertainment industry. Entertainment has the Oscars, Golden Globes, and either the BAFTAs or MTV Movie Awards, depending on your level of seriousness, as signs of quality. The book world has The Man Booker, the Costa Awards, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Like most awards, they are flawed and carry Eurocentric agendas. The first of the holy trinity, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, released its longlist of nominees recently, and boasts a stronghold of significant authors.
Amid the current climate of heightened feminist consciousness, the announcement was an opportunity to re-establish the importance of the award, admitting that across the board “we are nowhere we should be” when considering the literary recognition of female authors. The Baileys Women’s Award for Fiction is an act to remedy that. The chair of the judges, Shami Chakrabarti, emphasizes the need for this award, proclaiming “we need to celebrate stories by women, for women, as just one more way to redress gender injustice”.
The prize, more commonly known as the Orange Prize, was established in 1996 with ambitions to improve the literary recognition of female authors. Prompted after the 1991 Man Booker shortlist failed to include a single female author, several authors including Kate Mosse established the prize in search of greater female literary recognition. The award was originally going to be sponsored by Mitsubishi in 1994, but their support was withdrawn when the award incited controversy due to its sexist ambitions (duh). So Orange emerged, and over the last 20 years it has been rebranded according to changes in sponsorship. Baileys is the current sponsor, its support for the prize the latest in a line of gendered marketing strategies.
In its twenty-year run the award has provided incredible authors with the success and acclaim they deserve. The list of previous winners includes the likes of Ali Smith, A. M. Homes, Ann Patchett, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, everyone’s favourite Beyoncé loop (but seriously she’s also a great novelist). Despite the very impressive list of contemporary authors this prize has recognised, none of these authors has won a Man Booker, which creates a slightly difficult dialogue between the two prizes.
The lineup of books for the 2015 longlist includes several popular novels. Elizabeth Healey’s Costa award winning debut novel Elizabeth is Missing is a hybrid of genre: a bit of crime, and not quite literary fictions, and the central character is an Alzheimer sufferer. Sarah Waters’ historical novel The Paying Guests is set in the 1920s and explores the changes to the social structure in the post-World War One era. Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven is an apocalyptic novel, which imagines the aftermath of a crippling new strand of flu. Anne Tyler’s Spool of Thread is her twentieth novel, and takes on the minutiae of a family in a subtle and deceptive way. Ali Smith’s How to Be Both is a book of two parts, one set in the 1960s and the other in the renaissance period. The shortlist is released in April, and the winner is announced in June.
The succinct and tidy name of the Orange Prize was recognisable and garnered respect. Becoming the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction feels like an unfortunate shift, and in the wrong direction. By adding “women’s” to the title, the political agenda comes to the fore, rather than the literary merits of the work selected. The usage of “women’s” also carries implications of its other-ness. It feels pejorative.
But perhaps we’re moving to a place where the inherent negativity and subjugation of women is losing its force. I hope so. Do we also need to talk about how the most important literary award has the word “Man” in it? Sure it’s from the investment company that sponsors it, but come on. Meanwhile, the sponsor for the Women’s award has moved from being a gender-neutral mobile network, to a creamy alcoholic beverage that is predominantly consumed by females, ushering the same gender specific consumption to befall the literature.