Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction - a stellar coterie of six women writers


The 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction – 
a stellar coterie of six women writers. 


Previously called the Orange Prize, the award was created to redress a gender imbalance after it became clear that the 1991 Booker Prize shortlist was sans a single female author – in fact most of the big literary prizes were overlooking quality writing by women. Readers were missing out on great novels, and in January 1992  a group of publishers, agents, journalists, reviewers, booksellers and librarians merged to start a prize specifically for women writers. Orange signed on as the sponsor. 



The first Orange Prize for Fiction was awarded to Helen Dunmore in May 1996 for A Spell of Winter and since then the best exemplars of fiction writing by women in English have won the przie;, to include Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Andrea Levy, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, Carol Shields, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichei, Rose Tremain,  Madeline Miller, and last year, newcomer  The 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction – a stellar coterie of six women writers. 

Previously called the Orange Prize, the award was created to redress a gender imbalance after it became clear that the 1991 Booker Prize shortlist was sans a single female author – in fact most of the big literary prizes were overlooking quality writing by women. Readers were missing out on great novels, and in January 1992  a group of publishers, agents, journalists, reviewers, booksellers and librarians merged to start a prize specifically for women writers. Orange signed on as the sponsor. 

McBride
The first Orange Prize for Fiction was awarded to Helen Dunmore in May 1996 for A Spell of Winter and since then the best exemplars of fiction writing by women in English have won the przie;, to include Barbara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Andrea Levy, Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, Carol Shields, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichei, Rose Tremain,  Madeline Miller, and last year, newcomer Elmear McBride.

But, the cry continues, as it has from the start; do we need a prize that excludes half the population? After all women can – and do – win the Booker and the other big prizes.  A.S Byatt has been quoted as describing the prize as “spurious”, but she may be missing the point.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty chaired the judging panel this year and was quoted as saying…"We need to celebrate stories by women, for women, as just one more way to redress gender injustice. I also don't think women are getting their due in other literary prizes. I am still surprised at some of the lists and comments made by judges and chairs of judges elsewhere, so I don't think it's time to end a women's prize."

I agree. This prize flags up gender issues in the publishing industry, not by shouting for equality, but by showing just how weighty, wide-ranging and innovative women’s writing is. Strange, then that the reason I love it above the other big prizes, is because the long list always offers such good books to read. Not stupidly clever-clever, like the Booker often is, just rollicking reads. 
As Kate Mosse has said,  "Every single bookseller says it sells books like no other prize… "

The quality of the titles on this year's Baileys Prize shortlist proves this; they are, between them highbrow,  ambitious, but; accessible, gripping. I have roared my way through half the list already and I’m keen to start the others, now. Here is, in order of enjoyment, the KTW review of the Baileys prize shortlist:

How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton) by Ali Smith,  one of my favourite writers. How to be Both is almost two stories, intertwined, with more than 500 years separating the characters - one a Renaissance painter, secretly female, the other a modern teenager living in the UK and desperately in need of some love.  Smith suggests you can read them in either order, but I would strongly suggest you start with 'camera' not 'eye' as you're far less likely to give up! "As always, Smith is being playful and inventive 's work. How to be both, almost  eludes description, which I’m sure was the very effect Smith was aiming at. It’s well worth the slight struggle although not my favourite of hers; The Accidental will remain that.

A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) is Anne Tyler’s 20th novel. She’s been writing since she was an undergraduate, and I discovered her in my own twenties. I’ve loved her books since then, and have read most of them. Although Breathing Lessons, which is a heart-rending novel, is often said to be her best, A Patchwork Planet is my own favourite. Her multi-layered shortlisted story is equally absorbing. I found it
thoughtful, but also intriguing, as Tyler looks at how our memories both create, but also destroying the histories we make up; especially about our relationship with people we love.

The Bees (Fourth Estate) by Laline Paull is “ambitious and beautiful”, according to the Telegraph, while Gwyneth Jones in the Guardian reminds us that “the crisis The Bees invokes is genuine, frightening and getting worse. Hive collapse disease remains a deadly real-life mystery, although some pesticides are certainly implicated, and "African" outbreeding with A mellifera scutellata (those "big fierce dark bees from down south") hasn't solved the problem.' The story is set in a bee hive – yes – set every character is a bee. Described as the Animal Farm for 2015, I can’t wait to read it. Guardian

Outline (Faber/Vintage) by Rachel Cusk. According to James Lasun in the Guardian, Cusk has a gift for making the most mundane situations compelling, plunges right in, emerging with a miniature tour de force of human portraiture and storytelling virtuosity. The story is set in Athens, where a writer is running a writing workshop. Any writer will recognise that scenario; they probably avoided writing about it like the plague, but Cusk dives in, making, according to Lasun “as gripping a read as a thriller”.
The Paying Guests (Virago) by Sarah Waters was the first book on the newly-announced list that I read, grabbing the hardback as soon as it was on the shelves as I have grabbed Walters’ books since the outset of her highly acclaimed career. This story, is set after the 1st world war, a time of austerity for a middle class widow and her daughter. They take a young couple into their home, and the outcome of that simple decision changes their lives. It’s a story of illicit love that combines many thematic ingredients class, gender, economic dependence, morality, suspense, and of course lesbian romance. This story is perhaps less well plotted than her others; she so well known for her amazing twists that I felt quite let down when I finally realized there wasn’t really going to be one. Even so, powerfully written, with her most steamy sex scenes for a long time. 
A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury) by Kamila Shamsie is one I haven’t read yet, but I have taken in Lucy Popescu’s long Guardian review, and I know I’ll have to steel myself to take this one on; as it crosses time, country and theme widely over 300 pages.  Popescu admits that “It is a rare writer who can transport her readers in just a few pages to another place and time. Shamsie’s writing is so evocative that she does just that. In this work she contrasts three different empires: the ancient Persians between 515 and 485 BCE, the dissolution of the Ottoman state, and the decline of British colonial rule in India. Spanning two continents and two defining events in the early part of the 20th century, the novel brilliantly illustrates how war tests loyalties and destroys empires.” However, she has to sum up that, “The parts of have not quite become a whole; the task is too great. However, Shamsie's passionate curiosity about how empires grow, collapse and die makes this a novel well worth reading.”
The shortlist in its entirety is worth reading and I, like a lot of my bookworm friends will be ordering all the ones we haven’t yet indulged in, right away..

But, the cry continues, as it has from the start; do we need a prize that excludes half the population? After all women can – and do – win the Booker and the other big prizes.  A.S Byatt has been quoted as describing the prize as “spurious”, but she may be missing the point.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty chaired the judging panel this year and was quoted as saying…"We need to celebrate stories by women, for women, as just one more way to redress gender injustice. I also don't think women are getting their due in other literary prizes. I am still surprised at some of the lists and comments made by judges and chairs of judges elsewhere, so I don't think it's time to end a women's prize."

I agree. This prize flags up gender issues in the publishing industry, not by shouting for equality, but by showing just how weighty, wide-ranging and innovative women’s writing is. Strange, then that the reason I love it above the other big prizes, is because the long list always offers such good books to read. Not stupidly clever-clever, like the Booker often is, just rollicking reads. 
As Kate Mosse has said,  "Every single bookseller says it sells books like no other prize… "

The quality of the titles on this year's Baileys Prize shortlist proves this; they are, between them highbrow,  ambitious, but; accessible, gripping. I have roared my way through half the list already and I’m keen to start the others, now. Here is, in order of enjoyment, the KTW review of the Baileys prize shortlist:

How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton) by Ali Smith,  one of my favourite writers. How to be Both is almost two stories, intertwined, with more than 500 years separating the characters - one a Renaissance painter, secretly female, the other a modern teenager living in the UK and desperately in need of some love.  Smith suggests you can read them in either order, but I would strongly suggest you start with 'camera' not 'eye' as you're far less likely to give up! "As always, Smith is being playful and inventive 's work. How to be both, almost  eludes description, which I’m sure was the very effect Smith was aiming at. It’s well worth the slight struggle although not my favourite of hers; The Accidental will remain that.

A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) is Anne Tyler’s 20th novel. She’s been writing since she was an undergraduate, and I discovered her in my own twenties. I’ve loved her books since then, and have read most of them. Although Breathing Lessons, which is a heart-rending novel, is often said to be her best, A Patchwork Planet is my own favourite. Her multi-layered shortlisted story is equally absorbing. I found it
thoughtful, but also intriguing, as Tyler looks at how our memories both create, but also destroying the histories we make up; especially about our relationship with people we love.

The Bees (Fourth Estate) by Laline Paull is “ambitious and beautiful”, according to the Telegraph, while Gwyneth Jones in the Guardian reminds us that “the crisis The Bees invokes is genuine, frightening and getting worse. Hive collapse disease remains a deadly real-life mystery, although some pesticides are certainly implicated, and "African" outbreeding with A mellifera scutellata (those "big fierce dark bees from down south") hasn't solved the problem.' The story is set in a bee hive – yes – set every character is a bee. Described as the Animal Farm for 2015, I can’t wait to read it. Guardian

Outline (Faber/Vintage) by Rachel Cusk. According to James Lasun in the Guardian, Cusk has a gift for making the most mundane situations compelling, plunges right in, emerging with a miniature tour de force of human portraiture and storytelling virtuosity. The story is set in Athens, where a writer is running a writing workshop. Any writer will recognise that scenario; they probably avoided writing about it like the plague, but Cusk dives in, making, according to Lasun “as gripping a read as a thriller”.
The Paying Guests (Virago) by Sarah Waters was the first book on the newly-announced list that I read, grabbing the hardback as soon as it was on the shelves as I have grabbed Walters’ books since the outset of her highly acclaimed career. This story, is set after the 1st world war, a time of austerity for a middle class widow and her daughter. They take a young couple into their home, and the outcome of that simple decision changes their lives. It’s a story of illicit love that combines many thematic ingredients class, gender, economic dependence, morality, suspense, and of course lesbian romance. This story is perhaps less well plotted than her others; she so well known for her amazing twists that I felt quite let down when I finally realized there wasn’t really going to be one. Even so, powerfully written, with her most steamy sex scenes for a long time. 
A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury) by Kamila Shamsie is one I haven’t read yet, but I have taken in Lucy Popescu’s long Guardian review, and I know I’ll have to steel myself to take this one on; as it crosses time, country and theme widely over 300 pages.  Popescu admits that “It is a rare writer who can transport her readers in just a few pages to another place and time. Shamsie’s writing is so evocative that she does just that. In this work she contrasts three different empires: the ancient Persians between 515 and 485 BCE, the dissolution of the Ottoman state, and the decline of British colonial rule in India. Spanning two continents and two defining events in the early part of the 20th century, the novel brilliantly illustrates how war tests loyalties and destroys empires.” However, she has to sum up that, “The parts of have not quite become a whole; the task is too great. However, Shamsie's passionate curiosity about how empires grow, collapse and die makes this a novel well worth reading.”
The shortlist in its entirety is worth reading and I, like a lot of my bookworm friends will be ordering all the ones we haven’t yet indulged in, right away.

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