Women’s Prize 2019 Shortlist Reaction

Well… it’s here.

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In case you missed it, the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 shortlist:

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Milkman by Anna Burns
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Circe by Madeline Miller

My friend Chelsea was visiting this weekend, which naturally meant she was subjected to a lot of my last minute excitement about the Women’s Prize in the hours leading up to the shortlist announcement. At one point she asked me what my nightmare shortlist would look like, and I had to think about that one for a minute, but since I only really didn’t get on with three of the books (Chinese Restaurant, Swan Song, and Praise Song) I erroneously declared that unless all three of those made it, I’d probably be happy with anything.

Well, none of those three made it, and I am livid. In fact, two of my absolute favorites (Milkman and The Silence of the Girls) made it, and I am livid.  My average star rating for these six books is 4 stars, and I hate this shortlist.

Because it’s not about these six titles on their own; for the most part these are good, competent, entertaining books – it’s about the shortlist as a whole.  And the impression I’m getting from this list is that the judges aren’t particularly interested in daring, innovative fiction; they care more about marketability and crowd-pleasing.

And here’s where I have to clarify that I’m not saying this out of literary snobbery; I’m not suggesting that the most accessible titles can’t also be great, enjoyable books. But the aim of the Women’s Prize is ostensibly to award ‘the best’ novel written by a woman in the past year. And no, true objectivity is never going to be possible, and we could have a whole conversation about that.  In fact, I think this is the reason why I’m rarely incensed by longlists, even ones that don’t inspire me; taking a list of 200+ eligible books and whittling it down to the ten or fifteen ‘best’ is such a fool’s errand that I’m always more interested in seeing the judges work with the list them come up with than I am about lamenting notable exclusions.  In fact, my general excitement about this particular longlist is well-documented here.  Yes, there are exceptions, but I think that for the most part, the judges came up with a remarkably solid group of sixteen books.  It’s what they did with that list that I’m trying to wrap my head around.

I remain unconvinced that the sheer amount of breadth and depth navigated in Ghost Wall, Freshwater, The Pisces, Normal People, and Lost Children Archive is reflected in any of the titles that made the shortlist, with the one exception of Milkman, the impact of whose inclusion is neutered through no fault of its own, but because it already won the 2018 Man Booker Prize. 

I also remain unconvinced that the bold, nuanced, elegant, thoughtful explorations of a number of relevant themes in any of the aforementioned books are worth sacrificing for the sake of two Greek myth retellings and two depictions of crumbling marriages.  Because that’s the elephant in the room with this shortlist: the baffling repetition.  Circe and The Silence of the Girls both attempt to reclaim the voice of an overlooked woman from Greek mythology, retreading their familiar stories through a feminist lens.  An American Marriage and Ordinary People both tell the stories of ill-fated married couples navigating racial injustice and patriarchal oppression, trying and failing to save their relationships that are crumbling due to both internal and external factors.  In both cases, the two books accomplish the same thing.  Which is why I don’t understand how the judges can pit them against each other and not evaluate their strengths and weaknesses against one another in a way that isn’t afforded with the more apples and oranges pairs on this longlist (how do you compare the sprawling, satirical romp that is Swan Song to the brief and magical Bottled Goods?)  But with these four books, the judges had the advantage of their inherent structural similarities to allow them to compare and contrast.  Ordinary People is better than An American Marriage The Silence of the Girls is better than Circe.  That’s just my opinion, of course, and I know many people disagree.  But if I were on that panel, I would have made my case for the former of each pair advancing and not the latter.

But the aim of this post isn’t really to whine about my faves being excluded, though that’s naturally going to be a part of it, but it more comes down to a question that Elle raised in her incensed and eloquent reaction post.  What exactly is the point of any of this?  As we’ve established, ‘the best’ book by a woman is a somewhat unattainable ideal, but shouldn’t the judges at least try to strive for that?  We don’t need a panel of judges to choose the most sellable, most widely appealing book; we have Goodreads and Oprah and the New York Times for that.  I want a panel of judges to show me a shortlist of books published this year that each has done what no other book has managed to do, and the inclusion of two sets of eerily similar titles undermines that entirely.

Anyway, you all know how much I love Milkman – it was my book of the year in 2018 – but because of its Man Booker win, there were four titles that I would have preferred to have won the Women’s Prize for the increased exposure: The Pisces, Freshwater, Normal People, or, in my opinion, the most baffling exclusion and my own personal winner, Ghost Wall.

But I guess at this point I’m back to rooting for Milkman.

What do you guys think of the shortlist?  I know I just tore it apart, but if you love it, please don’t be afraid to tell me!  Literary prizes are hardly life and death, much as I may forget that at times.  I’ve seen a few positive reaction posts that I’ve loved – it’ll take more than one shitty shortlist to kill my enthusiasm for this prize.

50 thoughts on “Women’s Prize 2019 Shortlist Reaction

    • Yes! They took an exciting and dynamic longlist and chose the most safe books from it and I’m so very annoyed about it. Justice for Ghost Wall 😦

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  1. This really nails it: “We don’t need a panel of judges to choose the most sellable, most widely appealing book; we have Goodreads and Oprah and the New York Times for that. I want a panel of judges to show me a shortlist of books published this year that each has done what no other book has managed to do, and the inclusion of two sets of eerily similar titles undermines that entirely.”

    My personal theory is that The Silence of the Girls will win. Barker’s a huge, familiar name, she’s never won this prize before, Miller has, and Burns has already got this year’s Booker. I wouldn’t be totally enraged with this decision, though I’d still find it disappointing.

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    • Ugh I’ll be SO conflicted if The Silence of the Girls wins because I LOVE that book (it’s in my top 10 of 2018 for god’s sake!) and would be very happy to see it recognized… but at the same time I acknowledge that it just ticked a lot of my personal boxes and there is no way in hell that that was the ‘best book by a woman’ in the past year (RIP Ghost Wall). I suspect you may be right but the other one that I have a sneaking suspicion about for whatever reason is My Sister, The Serial Killer – I’m getting the impression that it’s a very Hot Thing at the moment but there isn’t the same kind of fatigue about it as with Circe and Milkman and An American Marriage. And I’d just be very surprised if Ordinary People won – I feel like it has underwhelmed too many people.

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      • I’d be so annoyed if My Sister the Serial Killer won–partly because then I’d have to go back and see if it was just me failing to engage properly, and partly because I really don’t think it was; I think it probably is good, solid, playful fun, and that is nowhere near enough for the whole “best book by a woman” thing.

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      • I think I could make a better argument for Serial Killer than An American Marriage or Ordinary People, and imo it’s about on par with the Greek myths for me as for what it strives to do and what it achieves, but if it beats Milkman, then lolz.

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      • I think the sheer amount of outrage on Twitter about Ghost Wall’s exclusion says it all. I haven’t seen half as passionate of a defense of any of the books that did make the shortlist.

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  2. You know that I am a passive follower of these prizes because I have not read any of the books, and yet I’ve read every post and seen every video on the longlist and I was just as surprised with this. I like shortlists to make sense AS A WHOLE and this one is so… safe? Bland? And you’re completely right, it’s sort of repetitive (I was sure that only one of the greek myths would make it and I was convinced it was gonna be Circe). And the fact thar Ghost Wall isn’t on it is so surprising, from what I’ve seen and from people’s opinions in general, I thought that one was a shoo-in. I loved this post btw!

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    • A shortlist like this makes me wish I were a passive follower! Ugh, it’s so frustrating because there was SO MUCH potential on the longlist – any number of shortlist combinations would have thrilled me, and they landed on the one iteration that doesn’t. YES, safe and bland are two words that I was trying to work into this ranty post, that’s exactly how I feel about it. I hope you pick up Ghost Wall at some point, it’s short but SO hard-hitting and well executed.

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  3. I love your thoughts as always! The most frustrating thing really is the lack of variety or daring. I remain #TeamThePisces until the end. But for now I will also be rooting for Milkman – being the first author to win both prizes would be nice for Anna Burns.

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    • I wanted The Pisces or Ghost Wall to win SO badly 😦 The Pisces was my pet dream and Ghost Wall was my practical hope, and the fact that neither of them are there is just so so so frustrating.

      I fully agree! Annoyed as I am at this shortlist, I’m not about to pretend that Milkman isn’t an extraordinary book, and Booker or no Booker it would be such a worthy winner of the Women’s Prize.

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  4. I feel like I had a slightly different take on this than many bloggers (although I agree with much of what you and Elle say about the pointlessness of picking books that are already selling well and repeat each other thematically). I was fairly pleased with the shortlist (though cross about Ghost Wall) basically because I’d already been so disappointed by the longlist. The committee failed to longlist three absolute standouts for me: The Western Wind*, Melmoth and Old Baggage. Therefore, I guess I’d already emotionally disengaged from the whole thing, and the longlist didn’t introduce me to anything new that really excited me, despite its interesting themes. Waiting for the announcement, I was more worried about certain books getting through than other books being missed off, and nothing I really hated has been shortlisted.

    I agree that The Silence of the Girls looks like a likely winner and I’d be happy with that (though yes it obviously isn’t one of the best books written by a woman this past year). I agree, the best book on the shortlist is Milkman.

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    • Oh this is very interesting! I had the exact opposite reaction! I adored the longlist – so many standouts for me: Milkman, Silence, Freshwater, The Pisces, Ghost Wall, etc etc… there were a few exclusions that I was cross about: Moshfegh, SEVERANCE ARGH, Where Reasons End (though maybe this one didn’t make the word count?), but the three I had most been invested in seeing on the longlist were probably Milkman, The Pisces, and Ghost Wall, so even though I had a couple of qualms I was ultimately pleased. But yes, fair point about being relieved by certain books not advancing – if Swan Song had been shortlisted I’d have rioted. I feel like this is the most disappointed I’ve ever been by a shortlist where I didn’t actually DISLIKE any of the books. But my general state of underwhelmed-ness has gradually transitioned to ire.

      I’ve had the ARC for The Western Wind for AGES and still haven’t gotten around to it, I should really do that!

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      • I liked Milkman, Freshwater and Ghost Wall, but I had read all those before the longlist came out (in the case of GW, long before), so I guess I felt less indebted to it? The Western Wind is just fantastic. Samantha Harvey, like Sarah Moss, keeps on getting snubbed by the Women’s Prize, though I think she has at least been shortlisted once.

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      • I will concede that the annoying thing about the WP longlist has been that the half I read pre-announcement was immeasurably stronger than the second half. It’s been a month and a half of duds for me. But, 8/16 of VERY STRONG BOOKS is still an impressive enough ratio for me to be pleased with it overall.

        I haven’t read Harvey before! In fact, I don’t even know what else she’s written… she’s one of those names that isn’t very big in the US I don’t think, but I’m glad we got The Western Wind. Now I just have to read it.

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      • I’ve only read Dear Thief, which is wonderful, but in a very different way from The Western Wind. She’s also written All Is Song (on my TBR!) and The Wilderness.

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  5. I’ve only read 2 from the shortlist (Ordinary People and An American Marriage) and like you was surprised to see the repetitions. I’m sure Silence of the Girls and Circe are different but it’s the same idea and shouldn’t one of them have been chosen? I was surprised Ordinary People made it because I haven’t yet met anyone who really loved it. And I’m always torn over whether a book that’s already won a prestigious award (like Milkman) should be in the running for another award. It seems unfair to automatically disallow but you also want to make space for other books. My takeaway here is that I need to read Milkman!

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    • The interesting thing too about Silence and Circe is that there are SO MANY different ways to approach a myth retelling and both of these essentially approach their stories the exact same way? Like, if one were a literal retelling set in Ancient Greece and one were an abstract retelling set in futuristic outer space, fair play, maybe it wouldn’t be fair to compare them, but they’re BOTH literal retellings that tell a man’s story from a woman’s perspective. I mean…

      And same re Ordinary People – I did enjoy it, I gave it 4 stars, but its initial impression on me has slightly faded over time and even the people I know who liked it don’t seem to be passionately defending it. Why that book was able to inspire the judges more than Ghost Wall is beyond me.

      But yes, you do! Milkman is every bit as good as these awards would like us to believe.

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  6. Yes, we got the Rachel reaction post!! I’ve been waiting excitedly.

    I loved what you said about there being already prizes for widely liked/selling books. That is exactly how I feel – we don’t want the book that everyone will like and that will surely sell well, we want ambition and talent. So well put. Glad you wrote this.

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    • I appreciate you all waiting over 48 hours for this!!! I started it on Sunday night but didn’t have time to sit down and properly rant until last night.

      And yes, exactly – prizes should drive sales, not the other way around! There’s a market for weird, experimental, innovative fiction – Milkman proves that – and that’s the kind of book that I want to see honored by prizes like this when the Circes and An American Marriages of the world already have so, so, so much attention.

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  7. Excellent post! 👌🏼 When I saw the shortlist announcement, I honestly said out loud: ”Is this a joke?!” 😳 I still can’t believe that Freshwater, Ghost Wall, and Lost Children Archive didn’t make the shortlist! 🙈

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  8. Say it louder for the judges at the back! I couldn’t agree more with all your points. This shortlist is an example of something being considerably weaker than the sum of its parts.

    The value and impact of Silence and Circe’s places on the list is undermined by their undeniable similarity, so too with Ordinary People and An American Marriage. Milkman’s inclusion is diluted by its prior success. That leaves Serial Killer as the only original and interesting choice. And the fact that it’s far and away the most ‘readable’ and marketable on the list because of its thriller-esque qualities sums up the apparent approach to the list as a whole.

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    • Nail painting emoji @ all of this nonsense tbh.

      YES that really hits the nail on the thread. Not ONE of these books is a risk. I mean, last year they had the widely popular Sing Unburied Sing and Home Fire, but that was mitigated by the inclusion of smaller and more innovative titles like Sight and The Idiot and When I Hit You. This year it’s just… six incredibly commercially successful books. It’s so frustrating that they could have made a significant impact on the sales of any number of the more obscure titles from the longlist (Bottled Goods sends its indie press regards…) and instead this is what they went with. I keep saying this in comments but LITERARY PRIZES SHOULD DRIVE SALES NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND UGH.

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      • YES! I was genuinely (and in many ways, pleasantly) surprised by the number of lesser-known titles that were on the longlist, and how many of the ‘obvious’ candidates were absent. From there, it feels like they lost all confidence and opted for the safest shortlist possible. There was so much potential for a dynamic, varied, boundary-pushing list, and somehow we ended up with this hot mess??

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      • Absolutely! Much as I would have loved to have seen Moshfegh on the longlist I wasn’t about to cry over it – she’s doing just fine without this prize. But, so are Madeline Miller and Tayari Jones, and I’m not saying we shouldn’t disqualify big names just because they’re big names, but it feels like this shortlist fell back on that element alone rather than actually striving for something more inspiring. Argh.

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  9. I really enjoyed reading this post. You make some really compelling points. I was lucky enough to review an ARC of The Pisces and have been waiting for the public’s reaction to it. I definitely think it deserves more recognition. It is a fascinating and beautiful novel dealing with depression and the human condition.

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  10. This is perfect. I felt exactly the same before the announcement, that as long as my few least favorites didn’t advance (or possibly even if one of them did) I couldn’t imagine a shortlist result that would’ve really disappointed me. And then, even having liked all of these books, finding myself disappointed anyway. Even if only one pair had advanced it might have still have turned out okay, but two pairs really is absurd.
    I suppose I’m also rooting for Milkman at this point, though I’m afraid even if it wins it’ll just feel like a cop-out.

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    • Totally! And of course the two pairs that advanced were the most natural pairs in the entire bunch; I feel like I would have been less offended by the advancement of Bottled Goods/Milkman or the two novellas, because even given their natural groupings they were still distinct enough… But AAM/OP and C/TSOTG are basically the SAME BOOK doing the SAME THING ugh. The good thing about Milkman winning is that it would be the first title to win both the Booker and the Women’s Prize so that would be fun and historic, but yes, it definitely feels like the safest choice in a lot of ways… which is ironic given that it’s far and away the least safe book on the shortlist.

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      • Yes, that’s it exactly. It was so fun to find similarities across the longlist, but to have such a concentrated dose of sameness on the shortlist feels like an affront to the reader’s intelligence and a waste of shortlist space.
        And yes, Milkman would certainly be a worthy choice as the first title to win both awards! It just would not help my opinion of how the Women’s Prize is being handled this year, AT ALL. Then again, I’m not sure any of the other shortlisted titles winning over Milkman would improve things.

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      • Argh I know it’s such a catch-22: I think Milkman would be a safe choice but… what wouldn’t be a safe choice? MAYBE Serial Killer would excite me but after its recent Tournament of Books win that would feel redundant as well! And as I’ve said a hundred times I adore The Silence of the Girls but I really don’t think it deserves to win over Milkman. All roads keep leading back to Milkman for me, which in a way is kind of annoying because I’ve been championing this book for over half a year now, I’d like to mix it up a bit!

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      • I feel the same. The only two I would really want to win are Milkman or My Sister, but both choices are a bit frustrating because they’re already winners. (I was so excited to see My Sister pull ahead of Warlight for the ToB win!) And yes, if I was just reading Milkman for the first time now I would have more enthusiasm for a potential double win for Burns, but since it’s already been a favorite for several months it feels a bit like old news… even though I loved it!

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      • Totally!! And I feel a bit bad that I want something ~new and exciting~ to win when Milkman still IS new and exciting, especially in the US! I guess this is the downside of how quickly publishing moves…

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  11. The only one I’ve read so far is The Silence of the Girls but all the ones I’m interested in didn’t make the shortlist (except Milkman, which as you say is diminished somewhat by already winning the Booker). It’s a shame that it seems to be so bland when there were some really interesting titles longlisted.

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    • Yes, for sure! I do hope you enjoy Milkman, I think it’s absolutely brilliant. But otherwise I can’t say I’d recommend anything off the shortlist that you haven’t already read… maybe Serial Killer because it’s so short, but otherwise, the longlist is just a lot better. Ugh.

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