Vick Hope, one of the judges on the Women's Prize For Fiction 2021. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for ABA)
Artillery Row

What do literary prizes tell us about publishing in 2021?

The implications of identity politics on literary trends

Attempting to take the temperature of what people are reading, and enjoying through the medium of prize shortlists is always tricky. By far the most successful novel of last year, or many other years, was Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, but it is extremely unlikely amidst many awards finalists. Conversely, many of the books that do appear on such lists are often critical darlings that have been largely ignored by the reading public, and therefore are well served by the boost that they receive from the exposure.

This especially favours literary fiction, such as last year’s Costa Prize winner The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey, which was unlikely to have flown off the shelves without the heavyweight endorsement that a prestigious prize of this kind gives it. Yet looking at many of the major prizes that have recently announced their short and longlists, some trends are clearly forming. The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction boasts that ‘For the first time in the history of the Walter Scott Prize, Australian authors comprise the majority of our shortlist’, with the other two places taken by the much-garlanded Maggie O’Farrell with Hamnet, already the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Fiction Prize at the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Awards, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall conclusion The Mirror and the Light.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, winner of Women’s Prize for Fiction

My money is on O’Farrell, whose novel has become one of the rare examples of literary fiction that has genuinely cut through to mass audiences, but it is interesting that the dominance of Australian authors is seen as a good thing, rather than a regrettable consequence of opening up the field to non-British writers. A similar debate has existed with the Booker Prize ever since the central requirement was changed from 2014 from the authors being Commonwealth citizens to any novel being written in the English language.

This thereby opened the field to American and Canadian novelists and has seen the likes of Margaret Atwood, George Saunders and Paul Beatty take the award. An argument made against its shifting to encompass all English language novels is that international figures such as Atwood can draw upon the full resources of their well-funded publishers in a way that many British writers cannot. The response, inevitably, has to be that literary prizes should seem international, rather than parochial, and that the best book published in any given year should win rather than one that fulfils an arbitrary set of criteria.

Yet the Booker Prize has itself shifted with the times. It rewarded female writers at a time when the literary establishment was often dismissive of them. Its second winner in 1970 was Bernice Rubens, and the likes of Nadine Gordimer, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Iris Murdoch and Penelope Fitzgerald were all early recipients of the prize. Over the 51 years that it has existed, 20 women have won the Booker, including joint winners, and in the last decade, there have been five female winners to six male ones. It has not rewarded an established male British writer since Julian Barnes in 2011, for his novel The Sense of an Ending, and the days when the likes of Ian McEwan and Alan Hollinghurst might expect to be garlanded with the award may well be behind us.

One prize that has never attempted to be ‘universal’ is the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It was established in 1996 as the Orange Prize for Fiction, on the grounds that it was believed that women writers were overlooked when it came to prizes: the Booker’s all-male shortlist in 1991 was especially notorious. Since then, it has often awarded the prize to more unusual recipients, such as Kamila Shamsie and Eimear McBride, rather than the usual Hilary Mantels and Margaret Atwoods, indicating an independent and quixotic spirit that means that the award is one of the more unpredictable handed out.

Over the 51 years that it has existed, 20 women have won the Booker, including joint winners, and in the last decade, there have been five female winners to six male ones

Yet this year’s longlist has aroused controversy due to the inclusion of the trans author Torrey Peters, after the organisers changed the rules in 2020 for the prize to be open to ‘any cis woman, a transgender woman or anyone who is legally defined as a woman or of the female sex’. This was in part due to the argument over Akwaeke Emezi’s shortlisting in 2019. Emezi’s publisher Faber was informed ‘The information we would require from you regards Akwaeke Emezi’s sex as defined by law’, leading Emezi to refuse any further novels to be included in the competition.

Those who refuse to accept the edict that ‘trans women are women’, including the Wild Women Writing Club, have written a scathing open letter to the prize’s organisers, saying ‘Women deserve our own literary prizes. The readers and writers who sign this letter—some of whom are obliged to use pseudonyms because of the threat of harassment by trans extremists and/or cancellation by the book industry—wish that you agreed.’ Its signatories include the likes of Aphra Behn, Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot) and Emily Dickinson. Household name authors are conspicuous by their absence – or pseudonymous presence.

If an all-male literary prize was to be suggested, there would be outcry that it was discriminatory, to say nothing of unnecessary

If an all-male literary prize was to be suggested, there would be outcry that it was discriminatory, to say nothing of unnecessary. Yet most shortlists these days are dominated by female writers, not just the Women’s Prize. Four out of five of the authors shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize are women, for instance. The Times deputy literary editor James Marriott’s relatively mild observation last year that literary fiction was now dominated by women led to anger and abuse, in large part because Marriott himself, as a white cis man, was not considered an appropriate judge, or critic, of the industry that vicariously employs him.

It is increasingly clear that, in these febrile times, issues of identity, racial and nationalistic politics will affect the world of literary prizes enormously. It will be fascinating, as well as salutary, to see how matters develop over the coming years. One thing we can say with certainty, however, is that the chances of an all-white male prize shortlist any time soon are down there with David Cameron’s political popularity.

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