The women's fiction prize -- and Baileys
A couple of nights ago the short list for the Baileys Women's prize for Fiction was announced: a galaxy of six recent novels, that I have had a hand in choosing.
First point (ok let's be honest): it was a great party, with loads of great women, and men, letting their hair down at the Serpentine Gallery.
Second: we were celebrating a wonderful selection of books. You can see the shortlist here.
So what was it like being a judge?
For a start, it was damn hard work. It wasn't the case that every submitted novel was read by every judge; but each one was read by at least two of us at the first, pre-longlist, round (and after that we all read everything). So that was forty or so books for each of us, and 150 something for the chair. But for me it was a wonderful alibi. I spend most of my life reading non-fiction, but the pleasure of saying to all around me that I was bedding down on a Sunday with some fiction (and this was serious, and could count as work) was truly wonderful.
I don't think it's giving away any secrets to say that it was a really tough call to arrive at a shortlist, and it will be an even tougher call to find a winner (we dont decide that till just before the announcement, so there are none of those awkward days when the winning title might leak out). But for me -- hard work and alibis apart -- the process has been a tremendous privilege.
Privilege? Well, there were those marvellous afternoons spent talking about the books with the other judges (I've never actually been a member of a book group, at least not for fiction; but this felt to me like a really great book group.... swapping ideas and arguments, likes and dislikes, literary judgements etc). But, more broadly, the glimpse of English language fiction -- date line 2013 -- that I felt I got was indeed something to die for. In fact, I've come out of the process so far with a sense of knowing what is going on in the contemporary world of novel writing (I fear I might be a bit over-confident about that sense and it will no doubt disappear soon; but all the same it's very good to have it at this minute).
But a few questions. First, when the short list was announced, people pretty soon asked how come there were no British authors on it. Was this a sign that British fiction was in a state of decline? Answer. I dont think so. It was a real tough call getting the long list whittled down to a short list, and there had been a number of UK writers on the longlist. Besides, I dont think one should make too much of a single year. There were I think three British authors out of the six shortlisted last year.
Second, why a prize specially for women's writing? When many of the general prizewinning novelists are women (think Hilary Mantel), why a prize that puts the "girls" in a special category? There are lots of answers to that one. But mine is simple. There is still a job to be done for women's writing -- which is not finished simply because of the well deserved success of a few female novelists. As people are now increasingly pointing out literary attention (in terms of reviewing and being reviewed) is still weighted towards male authors. The Women's Fiction Prize is a great way of turning the spotlight on women's writing in English right across the globe.
But what about Baileys the new sponsor of the prize (pictured there at the top)? Here I have a confession. I had never tasted the stuff, and thought it would never ever be my kind of drink, even if I had to sip a little politely in the course of judging the prize. The truth is that at the shortlisting party I ventured to try a Baileys chocolate version with ice. And a great drink it was too.. both glasses of it. So I guess another plus point to being a judge is that I've found a new tipple!