The Future of the Women’s Prize

6th Jun 2013


As women writers and readers across the world raise a glass of Baileys to A.M. Holmes, us lot at For Books’ Sake have been looking to the future.

New sponsors and old arguments

Tomorrow morning (when we’ve shaken off these deliciously creamy hangovers) it will be time to face the fact that the Women’s Prize for Fiction has now become The Lady-LOLzzz Prize due to its controversial sponsorship deal with Baileys.

There is something vaguely priggish about the uproar that’s surrounded the announcement of the new Women’s Prize sponsor.

It’s been compared to The Galaxy Awards and other “high street prizes,” with fears that the prize will be taken less seriously or that Baileys are too “girly” getting everyone atwitter.

People seem to be getting worked up about the wrong thing; stop worrying that the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction (yeah, this is really happening) is going to be seen as silly and lightweight. The way that everything associated with women seems condemned to be.

If there’s anything women need right now, it is feminism... Instead let’s exercise ourselves over the fact that the Women’s Prize has taken on corporate sponsorship at all. Feminism and capitalism really don’t get on. They just don’t. And if there’s anything women need right now, it is feminism.

That’s not to say that independence equals being a strong advocate; Persephone Books produce brilliant books, champion overlooked authors and have remained fiercely independent.

And yet Nicola Beauman told FBS Editor Jane Bradley “we’re a feminist publishers, but not the kind that hates men.”

A fantastic example of someone not using their power or influence to help the community that supports and maintains them. So is it time to drown our sorrows in a vat of something creamy?

Despite this unfortunate example, the fact remains that regardless of intentions, corporate sponsorship naturally restricts an organisation.

When it comes to women writers being ignored and belittled (something we feel quite strongly about) then we do need a strong, impassioned, outspoken lobby on our side. Not an organisation constantly looking for a nod of approval from big business.

So close…

The Orange Prize successfully relaunched as The Women’s Prize for Fiction, after Orange pulled their sponsorship in 2012, and a 2013 shortlist was announced.

The media tied themselves in knots over whether the prize is still relevant and whether Hilary Mantel was *allowed* to win more than two prizes a year.

So far, so normal, but so what? Women writers don’t need a nod of recognition from an organisation that apes the literary establishment – they need a champion.

Despite being liberated from Orange’s funding last year the Women’s Prize was heart-grinding-to-a-haltingly slow to take advantage of this new found freedom.

Private benefactors like Cherie Blair and Joanna Trollope (women known for voicing unpopular opinions) mean that the Women’s Prize no longer needed to worry about offending corporate sponsors. So where’s the anger? Where’s the fight?

The temptation is to view the Women’s Prize as a pet rabbit set free in the wild. Obviously it’s a scary world out there, without a corporate hutch, and everything could go a bit Watership Down.

But run free, run free little rabbit! Embrace the wild, attack the overgrown grass of patriarchy! Tear the leaves asunder from Mr McGregor’s lettuce warriors of misogyny!

As an independent organisation the Women’s Prize could have done so much more for women writers; unencumbered by the restrictions inherent in corporate sponsorship.


Time to get angry

Women writers are under siege. The recent VIDA stats demonstrate that women are continuing to be marginalised by the literary media. One in 3 or one in 4 books reviews is of a book with a female author; depending on how you want to spin the stats.

Successful female authors attract unbridled venom and are still publishing under gender-ambiguous pseudonyms on the advice of their publishers.

Feminist literary organisations are on the rise (For Books’ Sake, Geeked Magazine, Girls Get Busy, Becki Winson), women are angry – yet the Women’s Prize has remained silent.

To continue to be relevant and useful WPF needs to become a lobbying body; challenging the misrepresentation of female authors and aggressively responding to the VIDA stats (as opposed to asking toothless questions on Facebook; “Research shows a continuing bias towards writing by men. Do post your views”).

It’s not enough to just release a list of good books once a year – the Women’s Prize needs to get angry and they need to get proactive. Otherwise they might as well have folded at the end of 2012 and made room for the champion that women writers are crying out for.

Beulah Maud Devaney

(Image via Nanagyei)