Among the contenders for the leading prize for fiction written by women is a bestselling thriller and a how-to-live-your-life memoir so divisive it had some reviewers wanting to throw it across the room. Also in the running are novels by literary heavyweights Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith and Barbara Kingsolver.
They are all longlisted for what was the Orange prize until the phone company withdrew last year to concentrate on cinema sponsorship.
For one year only it will be called the Women’s Prize for Fiction, funded by several companies and individuals including Cherie Blair, Martha Lane Fox and Joanna Trollope.
This year 140 writers entered and 20 were longlisted. Most prominent is the all-conquering Mantel, winner of the Man Booker and Costa prizes for Bring Up the Bodies. Last week she won an award thought of as the “British Nobel” – the David Cohen prize for lifetime achievement. Her successes have provided ammunition for voices who say she has won enough. “I think it’s important to not think like that,” said Natasha Walter, a member of the judging panel. “You’ve got to choose what makes this set of judges most passionate and try not to think about the prizes that have gone before.”
Mantel’s success has also led some to question whether a prize for women writers is still needed. Walter said: “It is great that Hilary Mantel is seen as such a powerful voice in fiction but I think there’s still a way to go before women writers as a whole are celebrated in the same way as men. I think it is really, really important that we still have this prize.”
The longlist, which includes six first novels, is unquestionably diverse with books that tackle all manner of tricky subjects including Muslim honour codes (Elif Shafak’s Honour), bereavement (Kitty Aldridge’s A Trick I Learned from Dead Men), and a 54-year-old man’s questionable relationship with a girl of 11 (Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam).
“I can’t pick out a dominating theme and I like that,” said Walter. “That’s what makes it exciting, you move from voice to voice and place to place with these books and it’s great when you get something unlike anything you’ve read before.”
The list includes writers for whom a fuss has not been made for a while, including Michèle Roberts – longlisted for her 13th novel Ignorance – and pitches commercial novels against more challenging work. In the former category is Gillian Flynn’s bestselling twist-filled thriller Gone Girl while the latter features Ros Barber’s debut, The Marlowe Papers, a novel written entirely in verse.
A controversial inclusion is Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be, which has divided critics. Her liberal use of real conversations with friends and emails has had some questioning whether it is even a novel while a Sunday Times reviewer complained: “It’s not exactly dazzling repartee, just the mildly intelligent chatter of a bunch of arty, slightly self-regarding people.”
Walter admitted there was some debate over the Heti book and whether it was a novel at all. “I think that’s a red herring. If someone says their novel is a novel, then their novel is a novel.”
Two former Orange winners appear – Kingsolver for Flight Behaviour and Smith for NW. Walter said: “I have to say I was really surprised that NW wasn’t shortlisted for the Booker last year and I’m glad that we’ve got it here on our longlist.”
While there were no obvious themes Walter said she was struck by the number of women writing from male viewpoints.
“I’m not trying to make some big generalisation out of it … but if you think back to Virginia Woolf saying that her ideal for women writers is that they shouldn’t be seen as women, they should be able to be androgynous. Well, maybe we are getting more towards that.”
There were too some notable omissions too: no JK Rowling, Toni Morrison or Nicola Barker – nor Deborah Levy and Alison Moore, two women who made the Booker shortlist. “It’s about the tastes of individual judges and the enthusiasms in the room at that time,” said Walter. “No judging process is ever perfect.”
This year’s panel is chaired by actor Miranda Richardson and includes BBC journalist Razia Iqbal, writer Rachel Johnson and novelist JoJo Moyes. They will now decide a shortlist and announce the winner in June, by which time the prize should have a new sponsor for next year.
Kitty Aldridge A Trick I Learned From Dead Men
Kate Atkinson Life After Life
Ros Barber The Marlowe Papers
Shani Boianjiu The People of Forever are Not Afraid
Gillian Flynn Gone Girl
Sheila Heti How Should A Person Be?
AM Homes May We Be Forgiven
Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behaviour
Deborah Copaken Kogan The Red Book
Hilary Mantel Bring Up the Bodies
Bonnie Nadzam Lamb
Emily Perkins The Forrests
Michèle Roberts Ignorance
Francesca Segal The Innocents
Maria Semple Where’d You Go, Bernadette
Elif Shafak Honour
Zadie Smith NW
ML Stedman The Light Between Oceans
Carrie Tiffany Mateship with Birds
G Willow Wilson Alif the Unseen
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