The Best of the Best: Happy 20th Birthday, Women’s Prize for Fiction!

You have to say “Women’s Prize” because it used to be the Orange Prize and now it’s the Baileys Prize, but the spirit of the endeavor–an award for the best novel written by a woman in any given year–is twenty years old, and that’s definitely worth celebrating. To commemorate the occasion, the Baileys Prize organizers threw a bash to celebrate the Best of the Best of their last decade, much as they did in 2006 to celebrate their first decade. That year, the book chosen as the best out of all the Women’s Prize-winning books was Andrea Levy’s Small Island, about Jamaican immigrants in 1940s London, which I own but which lives with the Revered Ancestors and which I haven’t yet read. This year, amazingly, they were letting proles like me into the ceremony, so I bought a ticket, checked with The Chaos, bought another ticket (let no one say that men can’t possibly be interested in literature by women), and headed to the ceremony at the Piccadilly Theatre on Monday night.

I was only ten minutes early, but the organizers had decided to do open seating and the line snaked down the stairs and into the bar. After collecting a ticket from an efficient, friendly, beardy man at the front desk, I headed down into the heat and crush of the queue. A couple of ladies in front of me fanned themselves with programmes, and we exchanged the banal, cheery complaints that slightly uncomfortable English people are so good at. There were so many women–my age; older; white; black; Asian–and a fair few men (mostly white and middle-aged, but none of them looking as though they’d actually been dragged there.) The queue started to move pretty quickly, and I was rather pleased that the seating had been opened up, because it meant I could find us seats in the same row but with a clear view of the entire stage.

(A quick list of Things That Aren’t The Point But Which I Enjoyed Immensely Anyway: the fact that Stanley Tucci was doing one of the readings. Kate Mosse’s incredible, on-point, floor-length floral formal jacket. The way that Shami Chakrabarti always looks as though she’s humoring you simply by being here (I need to figure out how to do that with my face).)

Also, this absolutely fab picture of Mosse and Chakrabarti being like “Hey girl.” “Hey.” “What’s good?” “It’s all good.” “Yup.”

The evening’s template was, roughly, as follows: the chair of the judging panel from each year from 2006-2015 introduced that year’s winning book, explaining why they’d chosen it and what made it exceptional, after which one of four actors read out a five-minute extract from the novel. It was simple, but effective, and the actors were brilliant: Stanley Tucci (I know! I know!) was dry and ironic, which made his readings from On Beauty and May We Be Forgiven especially biting. Sia Kiwa, currently appearing in The Book of Mormon, was a bit less captivating, but managed to convince me by the end of the evening. Almost certainly the best was Prasanna Puwanarajah, who did beautiful, nuanced readings from The Road Home and The Song of Achilles, the latter so wonderful that the entire audience sat in a tense silence you could almost have touched. Sheila Hancock also did something rather extraordinary, which was to capture regional accents without parodying them: a Midwestern/Southern hybrid in an extract from Home and an Irish drawl in a reading from A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. 2015’s winner, How to be both, was read by both Sia and Sheila, a clever little conceit as the book consists of two interchangeable parts.

The most obvious and striking thing about these readings is how diverse novels by women are. Winners of this prize are funny, they’re serious, they’re traumatic, they’re sly, they’re sarcastic, they’re observant. Anyone who claims any kind of limitation for writing by women is a fool; the evidence was right there in front of us. This stuff is alive: Zadie Smith’s perfectly-tuned conversation between a sulky adult man and his concerned, slightly overbearing mother; Barbara Kingsolver’s depiction of plaster-mixing; the moment in Rose Tremain’s The Road Home where a celebrity chef is casually, unpardonably cruel to the only woman in his kitchen. (Prasanna was reading this, and the entire theatre gasped, audibly, when he got to it.) It is all top-drawer.

The judges were brilliant too: Muriel Gray with her Irish accent and spiked bleached hair and drainpipe jeans and stratospheric heels; Fi Glover, who  made a Peter Andre reference from the mic; Liz Calder, who was there on behalf of Bettany Hughes and is one of the fiercest, coolest biddies in publishing… It was genuinely inspirational.

2007’s winner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, was declared the Best of the Best, which I had sort of been expecting. I’ve not read it, but I’ve read her third novel, Americanah (shortlisted last year), and it was exceptional; without a doubt, one of the top twenty books I’ve ever read, and maybe in the top ten. She’s a thoughtful, conscientious, enormously skilled writer: her abilities and her ambition match. It’s hard to beat that.

Moreover, I have a new reading project: read all the books that have won the Women’s Prize. Of the twenty, I’ve read On BeautyA Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, How to be both, and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which won in 2002. I’ve also read other works by some of the writers who’ve won it (Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees; Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead) but not the winning books themselves. Hearing the extracts from each one piqued my curiosity; even the ones that didn’t appeal based on the jacket copy or cover design suddenly seemed intriguing. Delightful to have (yet another!) reading project, as November darkens…

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9 thoughts on “The Best of the Best: Happy 20th Birthday, Women’s Prize for Fiction!

  1. That would have been a great event to attend. Sounds like you had a good time! I also approve of your new project to read all the winners – so many good books awaiting you!

    • I know! I’m especially excited for the ones from the first ten years of the prize–writers like Helen Dunmore and Linda Grant made their names just before I was old enough to be conscious of contemporary fiction, so I feel like I’ve missed out on them so far and they’re clearly excellent.

  2. I knew this was happening, indeed I cast my vote for the eventual winner, but I hadn’t realised the results had been announced. I envy you benign able to be there. I have been to one or two other events organised by the Women’s prize and they have always been excellent.

    • They’re terrific–so warm and friendly and not at all snobbish. Being able to go to these things is one of the biggest upsides of moving to London!

  3. This would be a great reading project! Have you begun?? I’ve not read many of the winners either, just A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Half of a Yellow Sun, We Need to Talk About Kevin and Small Island

    I found Half of a Yellow Sun difficult to read, it took me a long time, but it definitely deserved to be best of the best.

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