Congratulations to Ali Smith – winner of the of the 2015 Women’s Prize for Fiction!
My top three books from the shortlist are ‘A God in Every Stone’, ‘Outline’ and ‘How to be Both’, so I feel very happy with the winner. Also I have a history of not having read the winner before any major prize has been announced so I feel like this is a thoroughly traditional win. If you’re wondering how Smith can be one of top choices without having read the novel, I refer you to any of her previous books and also to any recordings of her reading from ‘How to be Both’. I know there’s more to the novel than the short extracts I’ve heard, but these extracts alone are outstanding. I heard her read last night at the Bailey’s Shortlist Readings hosted by the Southbank Centre in London; she was breathtakingly good.
So, the readings themselves were wonderful and the short time for Q&A revealed some interesting insights, including Smith explaining that some of the aural quality of her prose comes from using a dictaphone as part of the writing process. The event as a whole however left me feeling a bit more queazy about the idea of a ‘Woman’s Prize for Fiction’ than I did this time last week.
Issue number 1: pretty much the whole audience was female.
I really didn’t expect this and, I’ve got to be honest, I really didn’t like it. It made me feel naïve for believing that this prize was about bringing recognition to female writers rather than relegating them to a ‘women only’ space. I refuse to believe that it is only women who read these books – Smith was also nominated for loads of other prizes, why didn’t her male fans come yesterday? I can’t believe that at other pre-award evenings the audience is divided by gender so as to statistically reflect the genders of the nominees. I’m not speaking from experience here, the only prize reading I attend regularly is the TS Eliot poetry prize, but I don’t remember the audience demographic ever striking me at that event. Anyway, it left a sour taste in my mouth, which leads me on to
Issue number 2: the Bailey’s sponsorship
This is linked to the above issue, because Bailey’s is such a girly drink. I call it that because it’s advertised so intensely for a female audience, it’s supposed to be sweet and fun and aspirational for sophisticated female drinkers. It made the prize seem that bit more tawdry and cheap, like it was a sweetened version of a proper prize (whisky) for ladies who can’t handle themselves or the serious stuff. While prizes need sponsorship, Orange always felt that much more gender neutral (plus, in my head, it was always the fruit, not the company). I am grateful to Bailey’s for sponsoring this award and they have brought a huge amount of publicity to a list of wonderful books. I just wish that some part of the event could have hinted more at genuine literary worth (as ignored by other male-dominated prize lists) rather than a girly night out.
So overall, I still love this prize because no one, of any gender, could argue with its excellent shortlist or winner. Nonetheless, it has left wondering why, in the 21st century, I felt that a women’s fiction prize was such a divisive event. It’s odd, because the shortlist could stand up to any prize list for the past year and these books are definitely enjoyed by more than a biologically defined 50% of the reading public. I know that time will prove me right in the case of ‘How to be Both’. Congratulations to Ali Smith for making sure that the legacy of the 2015 Bailey’s prize proves the worth of the competition, no matter how troubling I may find the petty realities that come along with it.
Ali Smith: A Worthy Winner