The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shadow Panel Shortlist

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A month ago, when the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist was announced, I commented on what an exceptional year it had been for writing by women. This is supported by both the reading we’ve done and the discussions we’ve had as a shadow panel. There have been some heated debates about some of the books and some that every one of us felt should be included on our shortlist but, for the first time since I began shadowing this prize with a panel, there wasn’t a single book that we didn’t think worthy of its inclusion on the longlist. This is the fifth year I’ve shadowed this prize and this has been, without question, the strongest longlist I’ve seen.

I preface our chosen shortlist with these remarks because I want to make a case for every single one of the 16 books that make up the longlist. Whether they’ve made our shortlist or not and whether or not they make the official shortlist tonight, there are 16 books by women worthy of your time.

One of the things that infuriates me about so-called ‘women’s fiction’ (as if somehow fiction written by women is gendered while fiction written by men is not) is the idea that it is concerned with the domestic sphere. The 16 books which make up the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist 2017 cover politics, science, ecology, farming, horse breeding/racing, crime, prisons, acting, music, writing, race, medicine, sex, drugs, performance, religion, violence, love, family, gender, marriage, parenting, death, grief, abuse and friendship. I defy anyone to look at the list and say there isn’t a single book on it that doesn’t interest them. Indeed, if you’re a man who doesn’t read books by women, there’s one here to get you started. Or, if you know a man who doesn’t read books by women, buy the one you know that’ll get him hooked – tear the cover and front pages off if you have to – and present him with it.

Here, then, are the six books we’ve chosen to shortlist. They’re not the six I thought we’d select when the list was announced, but now we’ve read them all, they’re the six that – as a panel – we felt most strongly about. If you click on the cover, it will take you to my review. You can read Eleanor’s reviews here and Eric’s here. Thanks also to Antonia and Meera. We’ll announce our winner on Tuesday 6th June, the day before the official winner is crowned.

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The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

Gustav Pearle lives with his mother, Emilie, in Matzlingen, Switzerland. His father, Erich, is dead. Emilie tells Gustav that his father was a hero and he died helping the Jews. As a result, Emilie dislikes Jews.

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Aged five in 1947, Gustav meets Anton Zwiebel at kindergarten. Gustav’s the only person able to stop Anton from crying; he does so by repeating his mother’s phrase that ‘you have to master yourself’. Gustav and Anton become firm friends and are soon spending time with each other outside of school. This disconcerts Emilie, not only because Anton and his family are Jewish but also because they are rich while she has fallen on hard times. She worries that Gustav will expect a certain type of lifestyle because he’s been exposed to it. At six, Anton is already a talented pianist:

There was so much that had been confusing about ‘The Linden Tree’ that Gustav almost wished Anton hadn’t played it. It wasn’t just the business about the notes sounding like rustling leaves (and yet they didn’t, not quite), or the sad man who was and was not there; it was the fact of Anton being able to play this complicated song. How could he have learned it? When?

And then Gustav had another thought which he found very disturbing. He imagined that at the very time when he and Emilie were on their hands and knees cleaning the Church of Sankt Johann, on Saturday mornings, Anton was with his piano teacher. He and Emilie were scrubbing and dusting and polishing while Anton was playing music by Schubert.

The novel’s divided into three sections: the first covers Gustav’s childhood, his friendship with Anton, Anton’s attempts to become a concert pianist, and Emilie’s illnesses both mental and physical. The second goes back in time and tells the story of Emilie and Erich’s relationship, and the third travels forward to Gustav and Anton’s middle age. What connects all three sections is love.

Tremain explores love in different forms: parent and child, friends, lovers, spouses, companions. What’s particularly interesting is the disparity between the picture Emilie paints of Erich and the revelation about his past behaviour. It raises questions about coping mechanisms for those who remain after someone close to them has died and very skilfully questions whether Erich’s heroism at helping Jews remain in Switzerland is compromised through his behaviour in his private life.

Some of the books on the longlist for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize have caused serious debate and disagreement between the shadow panel; The Gustav Sonata is one of those books – we’re absolutely split in terms of our opinions on it. For me, it never really came off the page. The issue here, I suspect, is mine: I’ve recently been reading and writing about women writing women and the number of books by women about women which go on to win major literary prizes. (See Nicola Griffith’s analysis of this.) I was frustrated then that this is largely a book about men; it would scrape through The Bechdel Test. It’s also a very measured book and I prefer something more high wire. For balance, therefore, I’ll direct you to my fellow shadow panel member, Eric, who had a very different reaction to me.

 

Thanks to Chatto and Windus for the review copy.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017


It’s after midnight and I’m on a train, typing this on my phone. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist 2017 has just been announced and my initial thought is: wow.

Wow that books I loved and hoped would be on the list are there: Midwinter by Fiona Melrose; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry; The Power by Naomi Alderman; Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyo; First Love by Gwendoline Riley; The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride; Little Deaths by Emma Flint.

Wow that I predicted seven of the list – my highest score ever.

Wow that there are 16 books, rather than the promised 12. It shows that the past 12 months have been exceptional for writing by women. However, with just over three weeks until the shortlist announcement, it does make things challenging for the Shadow Panel.

And wow that Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi isn’t on the list. Every year this prize misses an exceptional book and this is a stunning omission, made all the more noticeable when there are only three books by women of colour on a list of sixteen.

The list in full. I’ve linked to my reviews for those I’ve already covered and will add to this as I read the rest:

First Love – Gwendoline Riley

Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyo

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien

The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

The Mare – Mary Gaitskill

Barkskins – Annie Proulx

The Power – Naomi Alderman

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

The Woman Next Door – Yewande Omotoso

Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood

The Gustav Sonata – Rose Tremain

The Lonely Hearts Hotel – Heather O’Neill

Midwinter – Fiona Melrose

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

In the Media, May 2016, Part Three

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Books in translation have been having a moment following Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian. They wrote, ‘It is fascinating to ponder the possibili­ties of language‘ for The Guardian; Charles Montgomery wrote, ‘The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea‘ in The Los Angeles Review of Books; Sophie Hughes wrote, ‘On the Joyful Tears of a Translator‘ on Literary Hub. Judith Vonberg writes, ‘Translated fiction is not a genre. Why do bookshops tell us it is?‘ in The New Statesman and Anjali Enjeti asks, ‘Do Americans Hate Foreign Fiction‘ on Literary Hub

‘The abiding memory of my childhood is being unwelcome wherever we went’… Nina Stibbe.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

Tracey Thorn photographed by Suki Dhanda for the Observer New Review

The regular columnists:

In the Media: 16th November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

Photo by Wayne Thomas

This week, there’s been lots of discussion on my Twitter timeline about an article by Joanna Walsh, writer and creator of #ReadWomen2014 on ‘Why must the “best new writers” always be under 40?‘ prompted by Buzzfeed’s ‘20 Under 40 Debut Writers You Need to Be Reading‘. Traditionally, these lists have disadvantaged women who, for a number of reasons, often publish their first novel later than many men. So, although it’s arbitrary/silly, this week’s top slot is going to pieces by or about those who published their first book at 40 or over.

We have Linda Grant (first novel published at 44) on why she’s hooked on the Serial podcast in The Guardian; Joan Chase (47) in her own words and Amy Weldon on her both on Bloom, a site dedicated to writers whose first major work was published at 40 or over; Ruth Graham tells the true story of Laura Ingalls Wilder (65) on Slate; Alexander Chee looks at Penelope Fitzgerald (59) via Hermione Lee’s biography of her on Slate; there are interviews with Lissa Evans (42) on the One More Page blog, Helen DeWitt (43) in BOMB magazine, Meg Rosoff (48) on Rebecca Mascull’s blog, Katherine Boo (48) on the theatre production of Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the Independent and Donna Douglas (40) on Female First; while Bobbie Ann Mason (42) has a new short story ‘Ready‘ on TNB Fiction and the first chapter of Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye (51) is up to read on One Book Lane; finally, you can find out why middle-aged women are dominated self-publishing according to The Guardian.

At the other end of the spectrum, writer Nikesh Shukla supports young writers in Bristol. They publish online magazine Rife. Here’s Sammy Jones’ ‘The Five Stages of Street Harassment‘ and Jess Connett on ‘Hidden WWI: Teenagers at War‘.

There’s also been more gender discussion. Time magazine added the word ‘feminism’ to a list their readers could vote on to ‘ban’. Roxane Gay responded in The Washington Post; Hannah McGill discussed gender depiction in Sci-Fi in The List; Jess Meacham critiqued Suzanne Moore’s column on selfie’s being anti-feminist and her use of Sylvia Plath’s poetry in ‘The Eyeing of my Scars‘ on her blog, while Non Pratt looked at gender representation in Young Adult books in We Love This Book.

And the woman with the most publicity this week is Amanda Palmer, whose book The Art of Asking was published on Tuesday. She’s in The Guardian following a live web chat; interviewed by Maria Popova of Brainpickings on YouTube; has written an article for The Independent and been interviewed in Billboard.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

This week’s ‘Who is Elena Ferrante?’ piece is by Jane Shilling in the New Statesman

If you want some fiction to read:

Or some non-fiction:

This week’s lists

In the Media: 2nd November 2014

In the media is a weekly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous week and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. Also, just a note to make it clear that I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely.

The week kicked off (almost literally) with Julia Stephenson writing a piece in the Telegraph with the headline ‘Can a Woman Be Happy Without Having Kids?’ to which Bryony Gordon responded also in the Telegraph. They weren’t the only woman writing about children this week; The New Yorker ran an extract ‘No Babies, Please‘ from Megan Amran’s book; Kate Long wrote about ‘The Five Stages of Motherhood‘ for Mslexia, and Shappi Khorsandi wrote on ‘Raising Girls‘ on Huffington Post.

This was followed on Tuesday by Hollaback’s film of a woman being catcalled for ten hours in New York which raised issues about race as well as the way some men behave towards women in the street. Emily Gould wrote about it for Salon and Hanna Rosin for Slate.

On lighter issues, it seems I was pre-emptive putting Amy Poehler top of the list last week as this week she’s EVERYWHERE. (Which is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.) If you don’t know who she is, I’ll direct you towards her 10 Funniest Clips on the Telegraph first, then you can feast on the rest: Amy Poehler reading from the Prologue of Yes, Please on Pan Macmillan’s Soundcloud; an extract on taping SNL while pregnant on Vulture; talking about writing being ‘hellish’ on Huffington Post; interviewing George R.R. Martin on Vulture; 11 Amy Poehler Stories You’ve Never Heard Before, But Will Totally Relate to Your Life in The Huffington Post; 30 Hilarious Truth Bombs Amy Poehler Dropped During Her Reddit AMA on Buzzfeed; doing #AskAmy at Twitter HQ;

The other high profile funny feminist woman who’s had plenty written about her this week is Lena Dunham, who was in the UK promoting her book. Alex Clark interviewed her in the Observer; Emma Gannon interviewed her for The Debrief and wrote about meeting Lena and her event at the Southbank Centre with Caitlin Moran on Friday night on her blog. She’s on video on The New Yorker talking about Girls and Sex at The New Yorker Festival and there are facts about her on Oprah. While Rebecca Carroll wrote about Lena Dunham’s Race Problem on Gawker and Sonia Saraiya responded in Salon.

The best of the rest articles/essays:

The interviews:

In translation:

If you’d like some fiction to read:

Photo by T. Kira Madden

And the lists: