Ali Smith wins prized women’s fiction award

How To Be Both: ‘People will devour’ Ali Smith’s sixth novel, said the judges © PA

Since the 1990s, the UK’s prize for women’s fiction has aimed to celebrate female authors from around the world. Are women-only awards empowering or patronising?

When Ali Smith won the £30,000 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this week, she described it as ‘glorious’ and ‘unbelievable’.

Her winning novel How To Be Both tells the twin tales of George, a grieving contemporary teenager, and Francesco del Cossa, an Italian artist in the 1400s. Despite the 500-year gap between their lives, the two women are so interconnected that half of the books printed begin with George’s story, and half with Francesco’s. The Baileys judge Shami Chakrabarti compared it to works by the groundbreaking modernists James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Reflecting on her success, Smith said, ‘This stuff happens on the surface, and the surface isn’t what it’s about really — but how lovely the surface is tonight!’

But many female writers would argue that this award in particular is anything but surface, and that it was born out of a great injustice. For hundreds of years, men dominated the literary canon, and women would often adopt male names in order to be taken seriously. Despite the arrival of feminism, in 1992 the attitude did not seem to have changed: no women had appeared on the shortlist for the previous year’s Man Booker Prize. Shocked, members of the publishing industry gathered to discuss how this could have happened — and what they could do about it. The Women’s Prize was born.

Two decades have passed, and still fiction by women is rarely acknowledged by prestigious literary reviews and prizes. When the writer Nicola Griffith studied the Booker Prize winners from 2000-2014, she found that only two were written by women about the lives of women or girls. In contrast, nine of the winners were books written by men about other men. ‘Women’s voices are not being heard,’ said Griffith.

The London Review of Books tells a similar story. In 2014, there were 527 reviews written by or about male authors, as opposed to just 151 which celebrated writing by women. ‘The implicit message is that male writing is better than female writing,’ said Kathryn Heyman. ‘If you believe that women writers are equal to male writers, then try harder.’

Pride or prejudice?

Some complain that it is patronising to give women their own prize, as it suggests that female writing should be treated as fundamentally different to men’s, even though it is not. In 2010, the female author AS Byatt criticised the prize by saying that she did not believe in a ‘feminine subject matter’.

But it is clear that the literary establishment is not taking women’s fiction as seriously as men’s, others say. Women are missing out on the recognition they deserve and until that changes, the Baileys Prize is vital. It is a way of saying that women’s stories do matter.

You Decide

  1. Is there such a thing as ‘feminine subject matter’? What might that mean?
  2. Are awards for books ‘surface’, or are they an important part of how we appreciate art?

Activities

  1. Write your own short story inspired by the title ‘How To Be Both’.
  2. Choose a book, film or television programme about a woman or girl and write a review explaining why you liked it, or how it could be improved.

Some People Say...

“For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.”

Virginia Woolf

What do you think?

Q & A

Surely the author doesn’t matter as long as the book is good?
Possibly, but one of the great things about literature is that it can offer us windows into worlds we have never encountered before — we can empathise with characters completely different from ourselves. If we only read books by one type of writer, reflecting one type of experience, we are seriously limiting the rewards that literature can give us.
Aren’t there are lots of female writers in the canon?
There are a few. But even writers we now celebrate would often struggle to be taken seriously when they were alive. In Jane Austen’s time, reading novels was believed to be a frivolous and dangerous activity for women, and the Brontë sisters published under the ambiguously gender-neutral names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell.

Word Watch

Ali Smith
This is not Smith’s first literary prize — in 2005, her novel The Accidental won the Whitbread Novel of the Year, and so far How to Be Both has also won the Costa Novel Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. Her books often seek to experiment with form and structure.
James Joyce and Virginia Woolf
These two writers were key to the modernism movement in the early 20th century. Joyce’s Ulysses was a sprawling novel about a day in Dublin, and many critics argue that its experimental style helped to define the literature of its time. Woolf was a passionate supporter of women writers, and is often credited with perfecting the stream of consciousness style.
Canon
The greatest, most important literature of a country or generation is considered to be part of its ‘canon’. In England, this ranges from Shakespeare to Jane Austen to George Orwell. But who decides what is ‘important’?
Man Booker Prize
Launched in 1969, the Booker is one of the UK’s highest literary awards, with a prize of £50,000.
The London Review of Books
The LRB publishes around 15 essay-length book reviews every fortnight.

Subjects

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