Ahead of the announcement of the 2015 winner of the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction on 3 June, I spoke to Kate Mosse, novelist and co-founder and chair of the prize, about its beginnings, its huge successes to date, both in terms of sales and gender equality in the arts, and where they plan to take it from here.
The winner of the prize receives £30,000 and a ‘Bessie’ (pictured above © Sam Holden), a sculpture by the artist Grizel Niven; both anonymously endowed.
Formerly known as the Orange Prize, since 2014 the Women’s Prize for Fiction has been the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. This year will be the twentieth year of its being awarded after it was first given to Helen Dunmore for her novel A Spell of Winter in 1996.
Kate Mosse, author of some eight novels including Labyrinth and most recently The Taxidermist’s Daughter, was chair of the judges that first year and is the prize’s Co-Founder and Chair of the Women’s Prize for Fiction Board.
“The trigger for the prize was the 1991 Booker Prize, which had an all male shortlist,” she told me. “That in itself wasn’t necessarily an issue – in that any judging panel has the right to choose the books that they most love and admire. But what was interesting to lots of men and women in publishing and related trades was that nobody noticed the gender imbalance until it was announced in the press. So, what did that say about the idea of neutral authorship, about the valuing of men’s and women’s creative achievements?”
So, in 1992, a group of publishing industry figures – booksellers, agents, journalists, librarians, publishers and authors – met to discuss whether or not the apparent gender bias towards men in that particular shortlist was indicative of a wider problem.
At that time, 60% of novels published were by women and 70% of novels were bought by female readers, yet fewer than 10% of books shortlisted for major awards were written by women, according to Women's Prize for Fiction research. So, however one looked at it, the figures were odd and suggested there was some unconscious, if not conscious, bias that tended to see men's writing as ‘Literature’ and women’s writing as ‘special interest’. (A recent study by novelist Nicola Griffith shows the imbalance remains for the major literary prizes, and a report by Vida shows male writers continue to dominate literary criticism.)
The 2015 judges celebrate their chosen shortlist. From left to right: Laura Bates, Cathy Newman, Shami Chakrabarti (chair), Helen Dunmore, Grace Dent © Rebecca Miller
But what was to be done about it? “We thought the most productive thing – after all, what everyone wanted was simply for women’s work to be valued on an equal footing to work by men – was to set up an award to celebrate fiction written by women. … Nationality was to be irrelevant, genre was to be irrelevant, country of birth or residence was irrelevant, age was irrelevant, background, ethnicity, all of these things were irrelevant. The prize would celebrate the very best of fiction writing by women throughout the world on an annual basis.”
It does much more than just celebrate writing by women – it also celebrates women as readers. The judging panel every year is made up of five women, including the chair, who are chosen for achievements in their own field – whether that’s journalism, academia, television, or something completely different – as well as for their passion for reading. Mosse describes the judges as the kind of people who, “if you sat next to them at a dinner party and they recommended a book to you and they were passionate about it, you'd go home and get it.”
The prize has had its critics from the off. Some said it was sexist, others said women writers clearly just weren’t good enough, otherwise they’d be winning prizes already. “People wanted to present it [the prize] in a way that was not intended. But we felt absolutely sure that celebrating the very best of women's creativity was a good and right thing to do and, twenty years later, history, I think, has shown us that we were right to do that.”
The prize’s sales history and its reputation for choosing the best books by women has indeed shown that, and not just in the UK. All entries must be written in English originally but it’s very much an international prize both in terms of writers and readers; Mosse points out that “there is an enormous support for the prize for women's writing in many countries where shortlisted authors have been successful.”
One long-term goal for the prize is to hold more international events to widen readerships and also to inspire new women writers from all backgrounds, not least in light of the recent Bookseller survey which shows that BAME representation in the industry has hardly changed since 2003. “One of the ways that we can help,” Mosse says, “is making sure that we do as much as possible to encourage anybody who wants to write, and that it doesn't remain such a white, middle-class industry.”
The prize is also finding ways to reach new readers, having just established a partnership with Whistles, the women’s clothing store. The first event saw Mosse interviewing the prize’s 2005 winner, Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, in a Whistles flagship store in London. It brought supporters of the shop to the prize and supporters of the prize to the shop.
According to The Bookseller, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction year on year has the bestselling shortlist of any literary prize. It has brought outstanding fiction by women to new readers – male and female – and to the public’s consciousness, and it has ensured that every year for the past twenty years there has been debate around gender in literature. Has it served its purpose? Or is a prize for women’s writing still very much needed?
Kate Mosse © Sam Holden
“Prizes aren’t about need,” says Mosse, “they’re about celebration; in a very busy world, about drawing attention to the best, to what is excellent and what is exquisite.” As well as that, they “keep work of quality on the shelf, because otherwise, works that are quieter, less showy perhaps and by relatively unknown authors, simply won't stay on the shelf long enough for people to find them.”
That’s on the level of the relationship between reader and writer. But there’s also the global level. We’re still living in a world, Mosse points out, where in some places “women’s right to even read, let alone go to school and learn, [is] under attack.” The prize might have set out to bring writing by women to the fore, but it has done much more than that in terms of promoting gender equality in terms of women’s creative voices in different countries around the world.
“For me,” said Mosse as our conversation drew to a close, “I think that anything that reminds us that women’s voices matter as much as men’s – not more, but as much – that black minority and Asian and ethnic voices matter as much as white voices, that disabled voices matter as much as people who don’t categorise themselves as having a disability; all of those things that keep reminding us that the world is made up of everybody. The prize makes just one small contribution to that and remembering that difference and diversity matter is still very much needed.”
The 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction will be awarded on 3rd June. The shortlist is:
Rachel Cusk for Outline
Laline Paull for The Bees
Kamila Shamsie for A God In Every Stone
Ali Smith for How To Be Both
Anne Tyler for A Spool of Blue Thread
Sarah Waters for The Paying Guests
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