For a prize that has been awarded for fewer than thirty years, the Women’s Prize for Fiction has no shortage of history or controversy.
The idea for the award first came about in 1992, following the release of the 1991 Booker Prize shortlist. Although 60% of published books at the time were by women, none of the six Booker shortlisted authors was female. The following year, the Booker Prize shortlist featured only one novel by a woman. The lack of representation of women in one of the most prestigious English-language literary awards prompted the foundation of the Women’s Committee, which prompted the development of the Orange Prize for Fiction.
Orange sponsored the prize until 2012, after which it was temporarily renamed to the Women’s Prize for Fiction until Baileys became the new sponsor in 2014. The prize was known as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction until 2017, after which it reverted to the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is currently sponsored by Baileys and Audible, as well as a range of individuals and grants, rather than a singular namesake sponsor. The corporate sponsorship is not responsible for providing the £30,000 prize, which instead comes from an anonymous donor. Since its founding, the prize has faced criticism from both male and female authors, who have derided it as ‘sexist’ and ‘discriminatory’. In 2001, a panel of male critics were asked to draw up an alternative shortlist as part of a study on gender differences in reading habits. The men disagreed heavily with the all-women panel’s shortlist and described them as ‘soft when it came to the crunch’.
However, the controversy has not stemmed only from external sources; for example, the winner in 2000, Linda Grant, faced accusations of plagiarism for her novel. More recently, the debut novel of non-binary author Akwaeke Emezi was nominated in 2019, despite the author not identifying as a woman. A judge said that at the time of the nomination, the panel had been unaware Emezi was non-binary but that the writer had been happy to be nominated. However, when another novel of Emezi’s was submitted in a later year, the prize requested Emezi’s ‘sex as defined by law’, and the author then withdrew the novel from consideration. The prize has since announced that their guidelines define an eligible author as ‘a cis woman, a transgender woman or anyone legally defined as a woman or of the female sex’.
Despite the controversies it has faced, the Women’s Prize for Fiction has remained hugely influential and prestigious – the sales of the nominated novels always benefit, and the prize also helps draw attention to many talented women who were previously underacknowledged. It celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2020, and a public competition was held to find the ‘Winner of Winners’, which was awarded to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for Half of a Yellow Sun.
The prize continues to expand how it aims to ‘celebrate women’s creativity’. In February, it was announced that a sister prize is to debut in 2024, the Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction. Kate Mosse, Founder and Director of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced that it was not about taking the spotlight away from men but rather ‘adding the women in’.
Image Credit: “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Author, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah” by Chatham House, London is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.