Well… it’s here.
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.