Women’s Prize Shortlist, 2019: WTF?


Well, it’s been released. And I am…disappointed. No, worse: I’m spitting.

First, and most importantly: Ghost Wall is not there. Ghost Wall is not there. It is a completely inexplicable omission. If this is an award for the best book written by a woman in any given year, to say that Ghost Wall is not in the top half-dozen is sheer insanity. Which book that did make the cut is more skillfully written, more ambitious in its scope, achieves more thematic coherence, possesses more emotional heft, and conjures an atmosphere of greater dread in fewer pages? Not a single one. Every word in Ghost Wall is earning its keep; each page is a knife. The very fact of Ghost Wall‘s absence means we can safely dismiss the authority of this year’s judges. Which makes the rest of this analysis somewhat redundant, but as an exercise in cultural what-the-fuckery, let’s take a look at this shortlist as a whole.

It contains two retellings of Greek myths, two dissections of the breakdown of a marriage, a zeitgeisty confection, and the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize.


Snark aside, seriously, from the top:

Circe is a tremendously enjoyable novel, and I am not furious about its presence on a shortlist, although I’d fling it under the nearest bus for Ghost Wall; Miller’s style has sharpened and matured since she won for The Song of Achilles, and although Circe is a touch episodic, the ending–with its revisionist fate for Penelope and Telemachus–encapsulates the book’s entire project (not only are gods much worse than humans, but to be a female god is sometimes worse than being a female human, in a nutshell) in a way that doesn’t insult a reader’s intelligence. Of the two Greek myth retellings (which is, in itself, a baffling judicial decision), it is stronger than the Barker. The Silence of the Girls has its moments–in particular, the scenes set amongst the captured women, where they trade home remedies and look after each others’ kids–but mostly it is surprisingly full of manpain for a novel that was supposed to be a “feminist retelling” of The Iliad; the space and priority given to male voices and experience is not counterbalanced by Barker’s portrayal of Patroclus’s gentle, almost feminine energy. Nor, to be honest, did I find its prose especially “evocative”: it’s not enough to simply write sandals, fish, sea, sand and expect us to be swept away, and Barker never really engaged my sense of the strangeness of the past.

Another natural pairing in this shortlist–which is another way of saying “two books that do the same thing”–is An American Marriage with Ordinary People. Both are what I’m going to start calling Good Stories. They are engaging while you’re reading them, they tell a story well, and they don’t achieve much more. They’re not even reaching for much more; sure, An American Marriage glances at the iniquities of the prison-industrial complex and Ordinary People weaves in musings on parenthood’s relationship to feminism (mind you, Ordinary People was the book that finally made me think, “Well, if marriage and children habitually fucks up people’s love for each other this badly, why does anyone bother doing it?”), but that’s not really the beating heart of either of those books. They’re both, quite simply, stories about a specific marriage (or pair of marriages) and what makes them fail. Of the two, Ordinary People is bolder: Evans suggests that a happy ending might look like the opposite, which is an idea that mainstream fiction hasn’t much explored. But it is still neither stylistically impressive enough, nor ambitious enough, content-wise, to justify its inclusion here given some of the other longlisters. (The Pisces, for instance, is also a book that challenges the conception of “happy endings”, “women’s fiction”, and the romance narrative, in a manner precisely aligned with the Women’s Prize stated aims, and in more slyly intellectual terms, and it pushes that challenge much further than Ordinary People deigns to.)

The last two on the shortlist, Milkman and My Sister the Serial Killer, don’t make a natural pair, which is actually something of a relief given the irritating symmetry of the rest of the bunch. Milkman, plainly, deserves to be here: it’s a bold, innovative, dryly funny, relentlessly stylistic piece of writing, absolutely one of the best six novels by women written over the past year. Its inclusion is hardly controversial, however, given that it has already won the Anglophone world’s most prestigious literary prize; I am not inclined to give the judging panel any credit for recognizing its brilliance. My Sister the Serial Killer is the novel on this shortlist about which I have the least to say, for the simple reason that I read the first few chapters and found myself so profoundly unmoved by it (which is another way of saying “bored”) that I put it down unfinished. In one sense, I feel like I can’t talk about it because I haven’t finished it, but in another sense,  the fact that its supposedly shocking premise left me cold says everything.

Which brings me to the expression of a niggling doubt that has been growing in my mind for the past few years, primarily with regards to the Women’s Prize, but extendable to panel-judged literary prizes in general: who are the people choosing these books? Why are they making decisions like this? If they are not making their judgments based on quality of writing and/or ambition, what criteria are they prioritizing and why? And (whisper it) is it possible that there is a problem with the panel selection process? Because, no, you don’t need any particular qualifications to read (apart from the ability to do so), and you don’t need any qualifications even to form an opinion–everyone who reads is entitled to have thoughts and feelings about books. But an opinion is one thing: it can be formed in a moment, with little space for context. A judgment is something else: you have to come to it, usually by a process of comparison and analysis, and to have any facility at that, you need to practice. Judging a literary prize is immense hard work; for big ones, hundreds of titles are submitted. To assess and compare and keep in your head the details, merits, and weaknesses of, let’s say, two hundred titles requires the people who engage in it to have had a certain level of practice. And I’m not confident that present-day judging panels contain people who have had a lot of practice. The Women’s Prize panel usually contains some mix of broadcasters, professional novelists, and Public Women (high-profile and nebulous, presumably because they have name recognition and bring their own followers; I’m not saying these aren’t media-savvy decisions). I don’t doubt for a minute that all of them are intelligent and well-read. What they’re noticeably not–generally–is prolific critics. Maybe that’s a good thing; opening up the academy usually is. But then you get a shortlist like this and you have to ask, again: if the most elegantly written and thematically bold books aren’t to be rewarded, what possible criteria can the panel be using? And what exactly is the value of this, or any, prize?

A 100% Objectively Correct Alternate-Universe Shortlist:

  • Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss
  • Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Pisces, by Melissa Broder
  • Circe, by Madeline Miller
  • Milkman, by Anna Burns
  • Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

If you got this far, come argue with me (or commiserate vociferously) in the comments.

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67 thoughts on “Women’s Prize Shortlist, 2019: WTF?

  1. Do agree with you about the Pat Barker. It started well and the premise – telling the Illiad from thewomen’s point of view – was great, but then about half-way through it just became a conventional telling of the Achilles-Menelaus story, which surely was what she was supposed to be not doing?

  2. Oh Elle, when I saw it I knew you would be furious about Ghost Wall!

    In general, I agree with you, although as you know, I feel that it went wrong at longlist stage this year, not shortlist (and I liked Silence of the Girls a lot more than you did). I will have to try The Pisces.

    1. And yes, I basically want my book prizes to be judged by book bloggers, with whom I often disagree, but am much less likely to think ‘wtf’ about!

      1. I know – I wonder how much of that is to do with the fact that book bloggers usually explain their decisions, so it’s at least possible to follow a thought process!

      2. Maybe, but I feel like the bloggers I really trust usually coalesce around three or four titles at least… although this may be because I only trust bloggers I generally agree with 🙂 I guess the Prize has a thing where it wants to tick certain boxes as well as just pick the best books. Although that doesn’t explain e.g. both Greek retellings getting through.

  3. LIke you, I am puzzled by the choices and the strange repetitiveness of some of them. I love Sarah Moss, so with you on that one, and yes, Milkman is great, but as you say, they have hardly discovered a new talent there. I really want to read the Valeria Luiselli, I’m a big fan of hers.

  4. I am thrilled that Circe made the shortlist this year – I adore Miller’s writing and I loved that Circe was essentially a character study exploring what it is to be a witch – but I am very underwhelmed by the shortlist as a whole.

    I’m genuinely shocked that Circe and The Silence of the Girls ended up on the shortlist. I haven’t read TSotG yet so I can’t really comment on it, but from the reviews I’ve seen it doesn’t seem to actually be the book that was promised – in fact Natalia Haynes’ A Thousand Ships sounds like the book that TSotG was supposed to be.

    Mostly, though, I just can’t understand how Ghost Wall didn’t make it on there. The more I think about it, the more furious about it I am. Of the shortlist, Circe is actually the only one I’ve read so far, so it’s unfair of me to comment on the other books, but I’m so disappointed with how mundane the shortlist is this year. Two Greek myth retellings and two “unhappy marriage” books (my least favourite kind of book, I find them such a snoozefest), not to mention the inclusion of one author who’s already won the Man Booker and one author who’s previously won the Women’s Prize. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been this disappointed by a shortlist!

    1. Given the genre diversity and the overall quality of the longlist, it is absolutely amazing that the judges have come up with a selection this mediocre. One can only assume that some horse trading was involved, but honestly – this kind of repetition is maddening. Of course there can be more than one book about roughly the same thing, but then those books are in some measure directly competing with each other, and one of them must be better at what it’s trying to do.

  5. I couldn’t have said it better! Ghost Wall deserves every award in the literary world. It seemed to me that this was one of the most disappointing shortlists I’ve ever seen. It is almost as if they chose commercial value (i.e.success) over quality.

    1. I assume that’s pretty much exactly what happened. None of these books are even bad books! They’re just very… safe choices.

  6. Now tell us how you really feel 🤣

    I’ve not read any on the list, although I bought Milkman after its Booker win and have a review copy of My Sister, The Serial Killer (which I’ve heard good and bad things about) on my TBR. I’ve long had a problem with the Women’s Prize because I usually associate the books on it with mediocrity (oops, did I say that out loud?). I don’t think it pushes any boundaries, but then I’m not sure it was designed to do so.

    Prizes are always an exercise in subjectivity, but I think you’re right to point out that the judges aren’t always “qualified”. I think you need to be a PROLIFIC reader to qualify, really, and to have fairly wide ranging tastes and to be prepared to read out of your comfort zones. There are so many bloggers who would probably do a better job and might, in fact, be more reasoned and balanced and critical in their approach.

    1. Simon Savidge was a judge for one of the Costa Award categories the other year, so there’s definitely a precedent out there for bloggers to be officially involved, not just through shadow panels or in an advisory role (as I know some bloggers have held for the Walter Scott and Stanley Dolman prizes — a kind of pre-screening process to recommend certain books for consideration). I proffered myself as an official Wellcome Book Prize judge this past year and got a very nice but entirely noncommittal e-mail from the chairperson. Maybe some day!

      1. This whole thing is such fertile ground for prizes that I can’t understand why more don’t try to tap into this. Yes, book blogging has metastasized hugely from its humble origins, and there are loads of book bloggers who are totally happy to just write their opinions and move on, but there are still half a dozen bloggers and independent critics I can think of whose analyses, and ability to articulate them, are head and shoulders above the opaque platitudes that some broadsheets seem happy to publish in their arts pages. Why not use those intellectual resources?

      2. I don’t mind when the judges are academics or writers who have demonstrated their interest in the sorts of topics the prize considers; I’m less impressed when they include broadcasters or TV personalities simply because of name recognition. The Wellcome does a little bit better on this than some other prizes.

      3. Yeah, I don’t think all prize judges have to be professional literary critics by any means, but I do think a solid grounding in publicly critically appraising books should be something of a prerequisite (which takes care of academics and writers interested in the prize topic).

  7. I really shouldn’t be reading this at work because I keep hissing YES under my breath. (Although I disagree about Circe and Silence, as you know, but given the overall fuckery of this list I’m not going to belabor that point.) Your point about opinions vs. judgement is spot-on and exactly what irritates me so much about this: I have absolutely no objection to these six being someone’s favorites from the list, but to say that they’re THE BEST six novels published by women this year is just… patently false and it leaves me feeling immeasurably bitter for having wasted my time on this project if the judges aren’t even going to take their responsibility seriously, argh.

    1. Right?! That’s exactly what it feels like – like these are one person’s faves! Although given the horse-trading nature of panel judging, I wonder if the opposite is true and they’re actually no one’s faves. (There is a picture of the judging panel tweeted by Kate Williams, the chair, just after they finished choosing, and only one of them–Williams herself–looks even remotely happy. The others look murderous: https://twitter.com/KateWilliamsme/status/1122794507169345536 I’d love to know what went on in that meeting.)

      1. That picture is brilliant. Williams is a history professor, right, which probably explains those two myth retellings on the list… or is that jumping to conclusions?

      2. I’m always wary of assuming that people will read in a certain way because of what they do, but I do know that good history writing and good fiction writing don’t always do the same things in the same way, so perhaps that’s more likely to affect a person’s reading protocols.

      3. That’s actually a really interesting point – that it’s likely these are no one’s faves. I bet they each allowed each other to advance a pet favorite onto the longlist which allowed for interesting, daring titles like The Pisces and Freshwater to make it, but when it came down to it, it looks like they took a ‘let’s offend the least amount of people’ approach to the shortlist. I just cannot picture anyone giving an impassioned defense to half of these books. And even the impact of the most daring book on there is neutered by its literary and mainstream success. Argh.

        MY GOD that photo. Wow wow wow. What I’d give to be a fly on the wall in that meeting.

      4. It makes me wonder, for the thousandth time, how much weight sellability has in these sorts of decisions. Everyone knows that shortlisting massively boosts paperback sales, and an uncharitable part of me wonders if titles were selected with some reference to how well positioned they were to ride that wave. (But then, for goodness’ sake, if shortlisting boosts sales, why not put some real weirdos there and see what happens?!)

      5. Yes absolutely. Normal People’s absence is somewhat conspicuous in this regard, since that book is arguably ‘bigger’ than this prize (though I suppose the same could be said for Milkman, Circe, and AAM, but you could maybe argue that their popularity is waning and being shortlisted here could rejuvenate interest and yes, sales.) I’m similarly cynical enough to think that has to have been a factor here. Which is infuriating because why wouldn’t you award books and presses that actually could benefit from that sales spike! I wasn’t the number one fan of Bottled Goods but if anyone needed the visibility…

      6. I do often wonder with judging panels how likely it is to get a list dominated by one person’s preferences, if one person is extremely forceful or unwilling to back down. Or if the list just ends up being the books that no one objected to, and the more daring books are the most likely books to raise objections.

      7. I’m inclined to think one of those two happened, quite possibly the latter (e.g. no one is happy, instead of one forceeful person being happy).

      8. Hahaha that photo. I know this photo doesn’t actually mean anything, but I think even Kate’s smile looks very fake, which lends weight to your theory that this is a compromise shortlist that pleased nobody (although I maintain that I have seen worse Women’s Prize shortlists, so I’m not as bothered as everyone else about this one)

      9. It would be alarmingly easy to whip up a rumourstorm based on this photo, which is why you’re totally right and it’s worth saying again (this photo doesn’t actually mean anything, guys!), but goodness me it’s funny to look at.

  8. Yes! What in the world even is this short list? Your short list is one I would be very happy with, although I would stick Praise Song for the Butterflies and/or Remembered in place of The Pisces and/or Freshwater… even though I loved The Pisces and have not yet finished Freshwater (I tried to do audio with that one – big mistake!) I feel like Ghost Wall and Lost Children’s Archives are my adopted children and I want to pull a tantrum about how they were absolutely, 100% not given the credit they deserved.

    1. Isn’t it painful when not just one or two, but MULTIPLE, of the books of your heart get snubbed?! Especially when they’re so objectively excellent?

  9. I’ve not read any of these books – so can’t really comment, although I own Barker, Miller and Burns. I’ve never really followed the Women’s prize, it doesn’t excite me the way some of the other prizes do. I don’t really know why!

    It’s a good question about who makes a good judge. There’s also the issue of submissions which is why I do like the Rathbones Folio Prize – submissions are by the authors who are members of the Folio academy, and the judges, who are academy members, can call books in too. The resulting shortlist is much wider – and of course not limited to fiction.

    1. Yeah, the Folio Prize is obviously an attempt to address the issues that exist with juried awards, and I appreciate it for that reason (although weirdly its shortlists never excite me very much!)

  10. I could not agree more with the assessment! It feels like they opted for the books that were individually the most inoffensive and ‘safe’. There could hardly have been any consideration for how they came together to form an overall shortlist; not with TWO myth retellings and TWO dissections of a failing marriage. To have such a vibrant and varied longlist, and still manage to end up with a monumentally underwhelming shortlist is so, so sad.

    1. If it’s meant to be a snapshot of fiction in English by women in 2019 (and why on earth wouldn’t we hope for that kind of insight from this shortlist), it’s…not.

    1. The one silver lining is that, because it’s not there, and because it’s clearly a bonkers decision, we don’t have to take this year’s shortlist or winner at all seriously, and can start a revolutionary Women’s Prize collective of our own.

  11. I agree on so many of your points here! I haven’t finished reading the longlist yet, but this shortlist leaves me slightly underwhelmed. It really seems like the judges dismissed many of the more interestingly structured books in favour of more conventional ones. I am #TeamPisces till the end but always thought it making the shortlist was a stretch; so the book I am most disappointed to not see on the list is Freshwater, which I thought was absolutely stunningly written.

    1. Freshwater is a huge omission too—I’d have liked to write more about why I wanted the particular books that I wanted on the shortlist. (Perhaps I will, or perhaps my brain will shrivel up and fall out of one nostril due to frustration if I have to keep thinking about this whole situation for much longer.)

      1. The shortlist does not get any more exciting the longer I think about it. And it’s such a shame because the longlist was for the most part solid and varied and exciting. Freshwater really deserves more.

      2. Longlists are maybe the most interesting byproducts of any large book prize. Once the shortlist is announced, politicking starts to kick in, but there are some real gems on award longlists, languishing in the obscurity of the prize archives.

  12. I share your pain re Ghost Wall. As for judges – I rarely agree with what they come up with. Decisions by committee always seem to be a fudge to me which doesn’t lessen the frustration, of course.

    1. I suppose it is high time that I learned that lesson. I’ve spent so much of my reading career up until now having some level of trust in judging panels (why?! I have a complicated relationship with authority, I guess?!)

  13. Well, I can tell you’re not impressed….. 😉 Difficult for me to comment really as I’ve read none of them, but from what I’ve *heard* about them it seems a safe, and dare I say it, dull list. I’m not desperately drawn to any of them, and the similarly in subject matter seems bizarre. Do we not know who the judges actually are, then???

    1. It’s so safe and so dull, which is MADDENING because the longlist was one of the most diverse, in terms of theme, genre, content, etc., in years! The judges were: Sarah Wood, Kate Williams, Dolly Alderton, Leyla Hussain, and Arifa Akbar.

  14. Brilliant piece, Eleanor – I could sit here all night saying how much I agree with you, mostly in broad terms as I had only read 4 on the longlist. Specifically, I think you’ve made a very important point about the selection of judges. I really don’t think it’s enough to be high-profile, intelligent and well read – IMO this responsibility (because it is) should be given to people with demonstrable and immersive experience and aptitude as critics (not that subjectivity can ever be eliminated). I don’t follow literary prizes that closely because I get a feeling of randomness (or sometimes bandwaggoning). Like you I find the lack of variety in this shortlist bizarre – what is it about Greek myths? Maybe that’s just me – even in my Sofa selections I aim for balance!

    On a more positive note, I rate An American Marriage more than you did and am pleased to see it included.

    1. Obviously prizes have to attract money, and the best way to do that is by attracting interest/support/hype (and, given its recent sponsorship history, the Women’s Prize must be very well aware of that), so I understand, on one level, where their panel selections come from. On the other hand, things like this happen.

  15. The only longlisted books I read were Milkman, American Marriage, and My Sister… I thought they all had merit, but not so much that they must win all the prizes. And the other books on the longlist looked pretty good, so I’ll probably read what I can get from the library. (Ghost Wall is on its way to me now.)

    One of the reasons I enjoy The Morning News’ Tournament of Books so much is that we get to see the judges’ logic. It’s always fascinating to see how people determine which books are better. Some judges are great at explaining, and others can’t even convince me that they read the book, but at least I can see where they’re coming from. Of course, the TOB is a tongue-in-cheek exercise, but even so, they usually land on a pretty good choice for the winner.

    1. The TOB is a great example of a fairly transparent prize (or, maybe, prize-adjacent process…) The argumentation is one of the key reasons I pay attention to it; sometimes a judge’s logic is weak or compromised, but there’s still a sense of fair play, particularly with the match commentary. (Ghost Wall is GREAT. The Pisces, Freshwater, and Lost Children Archive are the others that I would urge people not to miss, or at least to try.)

  16. This is the best reaction post I’ve seen so far. I am completely on board with your alternate-universe shortlist, which is exactly the same as my predicted shortlist except I had Silence instead of Circe (I don’t like episodic). I’m so relieved to see someone bash the judges and judging process a bit, as my initial reaction was something like, “how can these be the best choices from the longlist? Am I reading wrong?” But no. My reading skills are fine. I don’t think I’ll pay much attention to who wins this round.

    1. Thanks – this seems to have struck a chord with other readers and reviewers! I don’t mean to bash them, exactly, but perhaps to sow a seed of doubt is a good thing.

  17. Smart take on the shortlist! It seems like the judges went for the more conventional books on the longlist, except for Milkman, which’s won the Booker anyway. The only thing linking them together (minus Milkman) is that they all make for fairly easy reads? The books’ social commentary also is topical but not necessarily challenging, at least in the same way that of Freshwater, Ghost Wall, The Pisces, etc., is?

    It’s confounding that they’d pick such safe and similar books when there was such variety on the longlist.

    1. I’d characterize the shortlist as safe, certainly. The only thing on there that really did feel like an “easy read” was An American Marriage; the others are all, not challenging exactly, but might have be reasonable contenders in a different year (with the exception of My Sister, but only because, as aforementioned, I got bored with it almost immediately). The frustrating thing is that this was such a ripe and innovative year for fiction by women; these six, which are by no means terrible books, just aren’t the most beautiful or challenging of an extremely beautiful and challenging bunch. It almost does them a disservice to suggest that they are.

  18. I have nothing to say about the books, because I haven’t read any of them, or any of the other books that could have been on the list. But since you’ve touched on my favourite hobbyhorse, electoral systems…

    […yes, I know, priorities. But there you go…]

    …it’s very common for people to ask of a shortlist or the like: who came up with this list? What were they thinking?

    The answers usually are: nobody; and they weren’t. Because decisions made by groups of rational individuals are themselves often irrational (both in the casual sense of ‘irrational’, and in the technical sense). Because the laws of electoral theory mean that all electoral systems are bad. And, furthermore, the winner of an election (or selection, in this case) can often depend heavily on the electoral system.

    [I’m always ridiculously curious how these groups actually operate, electorally, but unaccountably the media don’t seem to treat this as a priority, and some groups actively have rules enjoining secrecy regarding electoral systems. Which is sort of counterproductive…]

    One thing they might have done is used MNTV, the multiple non-transferrable vote (AKA plurality-at-large or the bloc vote). That means, each juror puts forward their five favourite novels, and the five novels appearing on the most lists get onto the shortlist. It’s an intuitive way to do it, and in particular it’s a good way to easily digest a very long list into a very short list (each person doesn’t need to form a detailed opinion of each book, they only have to remember their top five). But it tends to reward the “political party” with the most supporters, giving them a disproportionate number of “seats”. In a book context, what that means is that the jurors whose lists are most similar to those of other jurors are more likely to get their choices onto the shortlist, so two ‘similar’ jurors can easily overwhelm two (or even four or five) others.

    This may well be why you have the “pairs” in this list. Given a longlist of hundreds of books, which would tend to make each juror’s private shortlist different from every other juror’s, a book may only have needed two votes to make it to the shortlist under MNTV. If two of them happened to like Greek myths, they my both have naturally had both myth books on their list (perhaps in order to make sure at least one made it through), which could have been enough to get them both on the shortlist. Similarly, if two of them like marriage stories, that could get two such books onto the shortlist.

    [see the Hugos in recent years for the divisive results you can get from MNTV and similar systems, as a result of the way the system rewards non-diversity…]

    Or they may have had some sort of veto process, either formal or informal. That would tend to remove any divisive candidates that one juror took exception to. Similarly but distinctly, they could have used some primitive form of approval voting, like “hold up your hand if you liked X”, and only including books that got at least three hands up – that could allow divisive books to get through, but it would block factional ones, ones that nobody necessarily hated but only one or two loved. They’re unlikely to have explicitly used preferential ballots or condorcet calculations, because art jurors, like most of the population, tend to be willfully ignorant about basic political concepts and resistant to anything that looks like too much work, but these would also, in different ways, tend to promote centrist candidates.

    Whereas something like cumulative voting, where each juror has a fixed number of votes to distribute, but can vote for a book more than once, would tend to help allow books people were passionate about to make it onto the shortlist. There’s a whole mess of questions here about whether you’re valuing breadth of support or depth of support, and how you offset support and opposition, that can completely change your winning shortlist.

    …but I fear that most juries probably don’t give it a second thought.

    1. The MNTV system is what we used two years ago when I was on the shadow panel for this prize, and your explanation of how it works does actually provide a good reason for the symmetry of the existing shortlist. (Although SURELY any reasonable chair would’ve said “right well we seem to agree on the merits of books that are extremely similar to each other, let’s decide which is our favourite out of these pairs and then allot the remaining two spots to our next-favourites”. Or would that actually be a bad way to judge? Who knows.)

      In any case, it’s clearly a compromise list. I don’t know if you’ve seen this photo of the judges directly after the selection process, but they all look utterly murderous. My guess is no one got what they wanted. https://twitter.com/KateWilliamsme/status/1122794507169345536

      1. Yes, I saw that picture linked above. My initial impression was that Williams’ expression was saying “woah, I can’t believe I got my way that easily!”, but the more I look it at the more it looks like a panicking “oh shit, have we messed up? I really hope people don’t hate us!” smile…

        Of course, the starting observation should probably be: it doesn’t bode well that they could only get four of the five judges to sit for the photograph!

        Following comments above on the problems of selecting juries: I must admit, while I don’t follow literary fiction, or awards for the most part, it doesn’t seem like an intuitive lineup of people to pick the best novel by a woman this year. Going by their twitter accounts, you’ve got:

        – one “critic” and “arts editor”

        – one “style” columnist (recent work: an article on what women should or shouldn’t do with their eyebrows) who also has her own pop culture podcast and is the author of an autobiography detailing the bad dates she’s been on in her twenties (now updated with what she’s learned on turning 30!)

        – one “NED”, founder of a company “Using emotional data to deliver video ads on brand-safe premium sites driving revenue for premium publishers” (“she ensures the company delivers the most awesome social video campaigns on the planet”) and writer of a book based on how awesome she is (officially the “3rd coolest woman in tech”) about how other people can likewise “accelerate your leadership potential”; she also lectures on the subject of “Memes and LOLitics”

        – one “disruptor”, “psychotherapist” and “face of defiance” (an anti-FGM campaigner)

        – the chair is a historian (one of, as she boasts, “The History Girls” on TV), who has also written four historical novels about the worthy travails of privileged white women (“fans of Downton Abbey will love it!” gushes the cover blurb of one). All but one, to be fair, has managed to creep over 3 stars on average on Goodreads, although as those three have 990, 380 and 81 reviews in total (compared to, for example, nearly 120,000 for ‘Circe’), that’s not saying much. But to be fair, she was featured in three seasons of ‘Great British Bake-Off’, and she did five episodes in Dictionary Corner on ‘Countdown’, so she clearly knows what’s-what about modern literary fiction and no mistake.

        I suppose, in fairness, it’s not a terrible cross-section of “female Twitter influencers” – you’ve got the ‘telling other women how to look’ woman, the self-help businesswoman, the pretty TV presenter who’s tried her hand at writing a novel, the intersectional progressive activist, and the cultural critic.

        But it isn’t necessarily who you’d think would be judging something like this. I don’t expect them all to be critics (and they shouldn’t be, that causes its own problems), but I’m surprised they’re not at least more… fiction adjacent. You know, acclaimed novelist, experienced editor, bookseller – even a playwright or the like might be able to bring some relevant experience to the job. By all means have one random outsider on the panel, but a panel almost entirely made up of random outsiders?

        Frankly, I’m even just a little surprised that of the five jurors for a major prize, only two are even notable enough to have their own wikipedia pages. I suppose that could be a selling point!

        What we shouldn’t be surprised by: I think 4 of them are in their 30s, and the one in her 40s looks like she’s in her 30s. Needless to say, I don’t think the voices of young women should be overlooked. But one might think that in the sphere of evaluating novels, in which characters go through all manner of life experiences, there might, even in today’s social-media-dominated age, be room for the life experience of at least ONE woman over 50? Or do women over 50 not have enough twitter followers to be worth appointing to a jury? (or perhaps more cynically it’s the other way around: maybe women over 50, particularly those with jobs with more job-security than ‘disruptor’ and ‘influencer’ and the like, aren’t so much in need of more twitter followers that they’re willing to put themselves through this?)

        I can’t say I’m particularly indignant, not really being the target audience. But it does seem a… surprising… way of going about things. It’s not what I’d have assumed, before looking at it.

        Of course, maybe the real issue here is that they’ve called it “The Women’s Prize for Fiction”, and people have largely, implicitly, accepted its authority in that regard – which is why it seems unsatisfying when it seems to fail to live up to its title. Maybe the mistake was in accepting that title as something in any way achievable in the first place… given every novel from every female novelist from every country in the world so long as its in English, in every genre, perhaps anything claiming to be THE “Women’s Prize” would disappoint…

      2. You raise an interesting question there, too. Because there’s no ‘right’ election method, election methods should be based on intended objectives. But that requires there to BE objectives people can agree on.

        The first problem with any attempt to, say, draw up a shortlist, is that there isn’t even a consensus on what a good shortlist should look like.

        I can see why you want a shortlist without ‘repetitions’ – it makes for a more interesting shortlist. But on the other hand, if you expressly prevent ‘repetitions’, then you’re explicitly NOT creating a list of the best five books. So do you want the best list of good books, or a list of the best good books? Because those are two different objectives…

        [to be geeky a moment: one interesting way to draw up a shortlist would be some sort of minimax. Get each juror to rate the books, then find normalise the ratings (if they’re not automatically normalised), and create the set of five books that maximises the total rating according to the juror who is least satisfied with that set… similarly, you could create a pro tanto semi-shortlist, calculate the least happy juror, give them their favourite book, and then repeat until you have five books on the shortlist. Both methods would create a more varied shortlist, with the second method in particular being likely to appeal to a wide range of readers.]

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