Some Thoughts on the Women’s Prize for Fiction

By Marije Huging

In March, the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the UK’s most prestigious book award for women writers, for which the winner gets 30 000 pounds, was released. The drama that ensued earlier this month regarding the prize has something larger to say about literary prize culture, and it’s entering into the political realm.

For those who missed it, after the US novelist Torrey Peters, a transgender woman,

was longlisted for her debut novel ‘Detransition, baby’, a group of TERFs who call themselves the ‘Wild Women Writers Club’ (ahum) felt the need to misgender Peters. The group also mentioned that by putting her on the list, the prize ceases to be a woman’s prize and merely becomes a ‘fiction prize’, since this is what happens ‘at the moment when a male author is eligible’. Notably, the letter was signed by some dead female writers such as Daphne du Maurier and Emily Dickinson, pseudonyms, because some of the members of the group are afraid of ‘harassment by trans extremists and/ or cancellation by the book industry.’ In my humble opinion, it would be wise for these ‘Wild Women’ to no longer use the names of deceased female writers, who obviously cannot speak for themselves any longer, in order to make a point about the silencing of women.

This harrowing example, however, serves as a gateway into a discussion about intersections between politics and literary prize culture. I do not think I am the only one with a typically conflicting view on literary prizes. In her introduction to ‘The Golden Notebook’ from 1971, the infamous Doris Lessing lamented the horse race mentality, ‘the victor and loser way of thinking’, that leads to ‘Writer X is, is not, a few paces ahead of writer Y. Writer Y has fallen behind. In his last book, Writer Z has shown himself to be a better writer than Writer A.’ Of course, all literary prizes can, in a way, be seen as such a horse race, where authors are ‘valid’ if approved by critics, and critics, as Lessing argued, often base their reviews, not necessarily in ‘ imaginative and original judgment’ that authors long for, but rather to which extent a book accords to the current climate of opinion.

However, on the other hand, the Women’s Prize for Fiction classifies itself as a prize that ‘celebrates and honours’ women. In 1992, it was created as a response to other literary prizes such as the Booker Prize, which, in that year, shortlisted no women at all. Indeed, literary prizes, like the literary canon, have been criticized for only including middle-aged, white, heterosexual, cis men, since about the seventies. The Women’s Prize, therefore, can be considered a refreshing prize, as it aims to highlight marginalized voices. This month, it luckily responded to the attack on Peters with a statement stating that the prize does not allow for bullying. Yet, in 2019, the first non-binary author on the list, Akwaeke Emezi, protested against the award after a request from the organization to receive details about her sex as ‘defined by law.’ This shows that even the Women’s Prize has a long time to go.  It can also be argued that by this recent controversy, the prize, and the political statements it makes,  has received more and more attention, which might, from a cynical point of view, have partly been their goal. It is even so that me writing this mini-article that maybe a handful of people will read only serves to unnecessarily add to give attention to this scandal. Alas, it never ends.

The conclusion is that my views on the Women’s Literary Prize for Fiction were conflicting and remain conflicting. The prize can aid in honouring marginalized groups, and it can help you, the reader, to discover a novel with a voice you had paid no attention to before, and thereby maybe a whole world of novels and voices, that you had never heard of. Yet, also take these prizes with a grain of salt; novels are often political, but they can be so much more than that. As Doris Lessing wrote:

‘There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, skipping the parts that drag- and never, never reading anything because you feel like you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement. Remember that the book that bores you when you’re twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty and fifty- and vice versa. Remember that for all the books we have in print, are as many that have never reached print, have never been written down…’

Isn’t it liberating? A person can consume literature freely and unconditionally, whilst also being able to keep an eye out for voices and narratives that deserve to be heard. Thus, read what you want, except maybe not Updike.


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