Women’s Prize Shortlist, 2019: WTF?

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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.

Groundbreaking.

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.

If you like what I write, why not buy me a coffee?

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.