Pre-Women’s Prize Shortlist Meeting Thoughts

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The Women’s Prize shadow panel is meeting on Saturday to choose our shortlist. I am not, strictly speaking, ready. There are three books on the longlist that I have yet to read, or even manage to source: The Idiot by Elif Batuman; Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan; and A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert. The amount of guilt I feel about this is both profound and defensive: I feel awful for not completing, but I would also like to point out that I have not had a single free weekend since the 17th of March, and of those four weekends, three of them have required me to be out of London overnight. (The other one was the weekend in which I moved house.) So, sure, I could have done better with Women’s Prize reading, but part of not being completely mentally ill, for me, involves acknowledging when things are out of my control, and this past month has been completely and utterly out of my control.

Luckily, I already have an ideal shortlist in my own head, and I doubt that any of the three titles above would change that much.

If it were up to me, the shortlist would run like this:

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Not only is it spectacularly well-researched historical fiction; it also captures the spirit of eighteenth-century London, the dirt and the laughter and the skull beneath the skin.

 

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Sight, by Jessie Greengrass. Although it didn’t speak to me personally as strongly as I had hoped, it’s a very skillful piece of writing on very topical issues: motherhood, autonomy, bodies. I think it’s probably a strong contender for ultimate winner, actually.

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Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. The writing is powerful and muscular and sure of itself, and Mozley integrates the anger of Generation Rent with the anger of those pushed off the land from time immemorial. It’s not a long book, but make no mistake, it’s a heavyweight.

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie. A spectacular, furious book about what it feels like to be pigeonholed, marginalised, and permanently suspected by your own country. It’s dramatic and relevant and although Shamsie’s writing doesn’t always do it for me, her vision and execution are consistent enough for this to deserve a place.

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The Trick to Time, by Kit de Waal. It’s on the second tier of this hoped-for shortlist – I don’t think it has the emotional punch or sophistication of Elmet or Sing, Unburied – but de Waal has a way of writing about people’s weaknesses that is unbearably moving, never sappy or saccharine.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. This is a very interesting paperback cover choice. It’s much more commercial; one of my colleagues initially thought it was YA. That might be smart on Bloomsbury’s part, because my money and my heart are both with Ward to win, and if she does, the general reader might want a cover that doesn’t hint too heavily at the elements of this book that are dark and knotty and Faulkner-esque (not so much in the style as in the themes).


As for who will ultimately win, there are really only two choices that will be completely satisfying: Elmet or Sing, Unburied, Sing. At a push, I would accept Sight‘s victory with equanimity. The others on the longlist are – most of them – good, but Mozley and Ward are in a league of their own: in terms of their skill with words and structure, in terms of their ability to develop characters into real-feeling people, and in terms of their level of intellectual engagement with the questions and problems their own books ask.

There are fewer books that I would actually kick and scream about seeing on the shortlist or winning, but Three Things About ElsieMiss Burma and Eleanor Oliphant would all, I’m afraid, be travesties. Elsie is heavy-handed with its moral; Miss Burma should not have been written as fiction in the first place, or else should have been written with greater dedication to fictionalising; and Eleanor Oliphant, while undeniably fun, relies heavily on some lazy generalisations about the behaviour of traumatised and autistic people (which it unfortunately tends to conflate). None of them ought to make the shortlist. I’d also be annoyed if The Ministry of Utmost Happiness made it, but that’s less because it’s substantially bad and more because it’s just a perfectly average book that happens to have been written by Arundhati Roy, and that’s not a good enough reason to shortlist anything.

Am I missing out on Batuman, Egan or Seiffert? Am I completely wrong about Mozley, or de Waal, or Greengrass, or Honeyman? (Obviously not, but feel free to try and convince me otherwise.)

A full report from the shadow panel will be forthcoming after the weekend.

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15 thoughts on “Pre-Women’s Prize Shortlist Meeting Thoughts

  1. I haven’t read the Seiffert or the Batuman but Manhattan Beach was a disappointment after A Visit From the Goon Squad, overlong and with a twist which felt far too neat and tidy. Look after yourself, Elle. That’s the most important thing.

  2. Don’t beat yourself up: 16 books is a LOT for anyone to get through. I think you’ll really enjoy The Idiot, whether or not it’s shortlisted. Batuman’s books are zany and fun if a little unfocused. Manhattan Beach, on the other hand: I have a hard time understanding the enthusiasm for it from various prize committees. It’s serviceable historical fiction but buckles under the weight of its research. If it’s your first Egan, you’d really wonder what everyone thought was so special about her writing. I’d say read Goon Squad instead. And from what I’ve heard about Seiffert, it’s pretty standard Holocaust-era fiction.

    Your proposed shortlist is a tempting one. I’d definitely be happy to see Mozley or Ward win, and your others are all ones I really want to read. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the judges recognize Roy, however.

    • Thanks! I would quite like to read The Idiot, but the other two really don’t seem to be calling my name at all. Loved Goon Squad – it felt so fresh – so am quite relieved that I’m not missing out on the same level of inventiveness with Manhattan Beach.

  3. Don’t worry about the reading, or the not reading. I have a day off today and I had ALL the plans, but instead took a much needed nap. Just don’t overdo things. Having said that, I’ve just added Kit de Waal to my must read list as I’m hearing all the goid things. Take care you x

  4. Ha, I feel I have to say that I’ve already written out my dream shortlist for a scheduled blog post on Friday and it’s identical to yours, except that I have Kandasamy instead of de Waal (and I wouldn’t be unhappy to see de Waal on the shortlist by any means).

    I also agree re the books I really don’t want to see on the shortlist, though I’d add Schmidt, who I found unreadable. I haven’t given thought to the overall winner yet, but agree that Mozley, Ward and Greengrass must be strong contenders. I think I loved the Ward a little less than you, so might be more inclined to back one of the other two.

    The books you haven’t read were all very middle tier of the longlist for me. I wouldn’t be upset if any of them were shortlisted, but I don’t think they really deserve to be – totally agree with the comments above re Egan, for example. I wouldn’t worry about not reading them.

    • Yes, I suppose I wouldn’t mind Kandasamy either. Her book didn’t really set my heart aflutter, but the voice is strong and she’s got something to say. (I quite liked Sarah Schmidt’s book, although it is extremely queasy-making, but I don’t back it for the shortlist, not with all the other contenders.)

  5. I was very dissappointed with the Egan – I LOVED visit from the Goon Squad and thought this was unfocussed and weirdly unoriginal.
    I was also not a fan of the Schmidt book in the slightest; I see the skill but found it unreadable and unpleasant.
    I also gave up on Eleanor Oliphant for now because I just dreaded continuing…
    As you can see I am not having the best of times with the longlist. I hope the short list will be better and I really hope you’re right with your predictions.

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