Thoughts on the Baileys Prize
Here's the transcript of an essay I wrote for RTE Radio 1's arts show, Arena, on being shortlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. This was broadcast back in April - you can listen to my dulcet tones read it here - so admittedly I could have uploaded this sooner. Ah well, the sentiment remains.
When The Glorious Heresies was published, just over a year ago, a few people thought it necessary to tell me how ‘male’ it was, and that it was no wonder its jacket sported quotes from male writers. I’m still not entirely sure why. Was it because it had a certain boisterousness, when women are best suited to gentle pursuits, like embroidery? Did it seem too sweary, when women’s voices are made for arias and whispered gossip? Whatever it was that prompted these readers to tell me my novel had phantom testicles, it seemed that they were engaging with it first by concentrating on whether its narrative voice matched its author’s gender.
I am enormously proud that Heresies has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction for this reason: any initiative that focuses solely on women’s work immediately negates the need to think about, be derailed by, or make concessions for gender.
The prize was conceived as a response to the 1991 Booker shortlist which featured no women writers. Its founders intended it to be an international celebration of books written in English by female authors. Which remains its function today: much work has been done to address the gender gap in reviewing and promoting literary fiction, and it feels only fair to acknowledge that the last Booker longlist included seven women writers and six men.
Here’s an interesting hypothesis: the default for a literary author is white, straight, middle-class and male. Deviations from this avatar are seen as notable in their own right, which is not automatically a bad thing. But there is a danger that those writers whose heritage or gender or sexuality differs from the default exist first as a woman, or a person of colour, or gay, or working-class, or trans, before they are allowed to exist as a writer. That their work must have been conceived as a response to their own circumstances and not to the broader human experience. That their themes are personal, heavily political; their stories are treatises. They are studied first in the context of this difference. Universal themes are the tools of writers who are white, straight, middle-class and male.
Compartmentalisation may seem like a daft response to this, like bending to the wind rather than standing up to it, but it has its own rewards. A writer who is nominated for a restricted literary prize may find it rather freeing, because when those features that don’t conform to the default are taken for granted, the writer’s work is examined on its own merits rather than as a representation of a certain set of circumstances. With the Baileys, I am the default. I am a woman writer and no one is going to waste their time examining my book in the context of my gender: is it a domestic book, or is it a feminist work, or was it written by someone who can balance writing and motherhood, or, is it kind of strikingly male?
In celebrating women’s writing, the Baileys prize does something great. It gives us a roadmap for a space where books by women writers exist as part of a sweeping, chaotic and beautiful literary landscape, where they are allowed to just be, and so its parameters are conversely but conclusively liberating.