From murderers to mermaids, the “whole wealth of experience” features on the longlist for the 2018 Women’s prize for fiction, according to chair of judges Sarah Sands, giving the lie to “that stereotype of women’s fiction”.
The 16-strong longlist for the £30,000 award for “excellence, originality and accessibility in writing by women in English from throughout the world”, was announced on Thursday. The award, previously known as the Baileys prize, places two major names, Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan and Booker winner Arundhati Roy, up against six debuts. The latter include Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which won the Costa first novel award, and Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, a tale set in Georgian London in which a mermaid is captured.
Topics range from Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy, set in the far future in an apparent utopia, to Meena Kandasamy’s portrait of a violent marriage, When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife, and Sarah Schmidt’s reimagining of the Lizzie Borden murders, See What I Have Done.
“What strikes me is the range and the boldness of it – the true diversity of subject as well as authors. You’ve got mermaids and murderesses, which has got to be good,” said chair of the judges Sands, editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “You feel women could deal with any subject; they can take on big themes. It doesn’t feel like a partial list, where you think you need the men to make up the world. The world is really well covered in this list.”
Reading almost 200 books to come up with the longlist, Sands said she noticed that many titles by women this year featured an “adventure aspect … there seemed to be a lot of women striking out into wildernesses”.
“Also, I was really interested in how many people writing weren’t just professional authors, but had additional experiences. Psychologists or librarians, or they’d worked in museums. You had that whole wealth of experience coming through in the books. A real richness. And they are all outward-looking… the sheer range is really striking,” she said.
Several titles that had been tipped for a place missed out, including former winner Ali Smith’s latest novel Winter, and Sally Rooney’s much heralded debut, Conversations With Friends. Instead, Fiona Mozley’s Booker-shortlisted Elmetwas picked by judges, along with Kamila Shamsie’s Booker-longlisted Home Fireand Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time, in which a young Irish girl meets an Irish boy on a night out in 1970s Birmingham, only to be torn apart by tragedy years later.
“There were these big piles of ‘yesses’, ‘no’s’ and ‘maybes’ and you look at them so longingly. But in the end it wasn’t hard,” said Sands. “We stuck to the criteria of ‘if you just have to recommend a book to someone, what would it be?’ … Maybe that’s an advantage of a women’s prize with women’s judges: you tend to be quite generous towards each other. It was genuinely collaborative.”
With journalist Anita Anand, comedian Katie Brand, Women’s Equality Party co-founder Catherine Mayer and actor Imogen Stubbs on the judging panel, Sands said that she personally was drawn towards ensuring “geographical range” in the longlisted titles: there are eight British authors, four Americans, two Indians, one Australian and one Pakistani/British writer this year.
The Women’s prize was set up in 1996, following a year when not a single female author was shortlisted for the Booker prize. Sands said the longlist this year demonstrated that the prize was not “a special-pleading award” for writers who wouldn’t make it in other circumstances.
“I didn’t feel you were having to look after a group of people who needed it, you just think, ‘These people are really worthy of attention,’” she said. “The range of imaginative subjects, it didn’t feel cautious at all. On that old adage about writing about what you know, some of these women are writing about what they don’t know with real confidence and imagination. There doesn’t seem to be any subject women feel is beyond them … Some of those books do deal with victimhood, so you get victims of female violence, but then you get perpetrators as well. It feels very multifaceted and that’s what gives it its confidence. It isn’t women being pigeonholed in any way. You just felt real breadth.”
This year’s award is supported by three partners: Baileys, Deloitte and NatWest. The winner, who will join the likes of Lionel Shriver, Naomi Alderman and Zadie Smith, will be announced on 6 June.
The 2018 Women’s prize for fiction longlist
H(a)ppy by Nicola Barker (William Heinemann)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Jonathan Cape)
Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon (The Borough Press)
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig (Grove Press)
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (Corsair)
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar (Harvill Secker)
Sight by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray)
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (Harper Collins)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (John Murray)
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (Hamish Hamilton)
See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Tinder Press)
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert (Virago)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (Bloomsbury)
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal (Viking)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury Circus)