Baileys prize night
It was the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction presentation at the Royal Festival Hall yesterday evening. We judges had met the previous evening for dinner to decide the winner just the evening before. If you do it so close to the ceremony, it makes the secret easier to keep -- and indeed I was completely scrupulous and didnt even tell the husband (that would have been harder if there had been a week or so to go!).
Anyway it was a great party (even though I discovered that, at 6.00 pm, my new found enthusiasm for Baileys on the rocks didnt quite match my enthusiasm for a nice big glass of champagne) -- and all the shortlisted authors were there (apart from Donna Tartt), a good number of the long-listed, plus a huge crowd of supporters, previous judges,great women etc etc.
So . . . as you can see, the prize (of £30,000) went to Eimear McBride, for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
She gave a great speech, which actually brought a tear to my cynical old eyes. It had taken her a decade to find anyone who would publish it -- before Galley Beggar press (good for them) took it on (I met at the bash Sam Jordison who is one of the press's founders, and he reminded me that I had taught himm in Cambridge years ago ... so I found myself enjoying a little reflected glory, and musing on the great things our classicists went on to do in the world).
I had, of course, been curious to meet McBride -- especially as the book was a bit searing, and (spoiler alert) didn't exactly have a happy ending (though that wont surprise anyone who has got as far as page 2). I suppose that, despite knowing full well that there is a big difference between authors and their texts, I was still expecting someone who exuded a bit of agony. But, as you can see from the picture, there wasn't much agony in evidence -- at least not last night!
A Girl certainly isnt the "easiest" book on the shortlist, and not the "easiest" winner in the Women's Fiction Prize history. It's a lot more James Joyce than Jeffrey Archer. And there is a lot of experimental play with punctuation, sentence structure and so on. There was a bit of chat last night about the "accessibility" criterion for the prize. This took me back to a conversation I had had with my friend Ruth Scurr a few months ago in the context of other literary prizes. I remember her saying that accessible didn't mean easy. It was more to do with the effort-reward ratio. If you took the trouble to get into it , was that effort amply rewarded?
In the case of McBride's book, the answer is emphatically yes.