Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist Reflections

I was hoping to finish the longlist and get this post up before the shortlist announcement, but that didn’t end up being in the cards, so here we are – hopefully better late than never?

Women's Prize for Fiction Longlist 2019, photographed by Sam Hol
Photo from Women’s Prize website.

If you missed my shortlist reaction post (spoiler alert: I’m not happy) you can check that out here.  But if you’d like to hear some more in depth thoughts on the longlist, read on…

So I finally finished reading the longlist this week, and here’s my star rating breakdown for the entire list, with links to my reviews:

★★★★★ (6)

Milkman
Ghost Wall
The Pisces
Normal People
The Silence of the Girls
Freshwater

★★★★☆ (2)

My Sister the Serial Killer
Ordinary People

★★★☆☆ (4)

Lost Children Archive
Bottled Goods
Circe
An American Marriage

★★☆☆☆ (4)

Remembered
Swan Song
Praise Song for the Butterflies
Number One Chinese Restaurant

Average star rating: 3.63 

This really was a list of halves for me: half of the list I really enjoyed, half I felt strongly ‘meh’ about.  Half I read before the longlist announcement, half I read after.  And I think that’s why I’m feeling largely underwhelmed: not only was the half of the list that I read before the longlist announcement far superior in mind (you can see that breakdown here), but even though I enjoyed so many of these books individually, a solid half of the list felt a bit like a waste of my time.  And naturally I didn’t expect to love everything, that’s just statistically impossible, but I did hope to find a few gems that I wouldn’t have picked up in a hundred years if it weren’t for reading this list.

Because that’s the thing – the books I expected to like, I ended up liking (with a couple of exceptions – looking at you, Remembered).  The books I expected to dislike, I ended up disliking.  Nothing really challenged me or took me outside my comfort zone only to reward me for my efforts, which tends to be my favorite kind of bookish discovery while reading prize lists.  So I think that’s ultimately what I feel like I’m missing; that one book that made this self-imposed project worth the effort.  Because all of those books in my 5 star category I had already read before this list was announced.

So, I don’t know.  Am I disappointed that I read the longlist?  Not particularly, especially as I had a very fun Women’s Prize group chat that gave me some interesting discussion fodder as well as a place to air my grievances when it was taking me 2 months to get through Swan Song.  But was I hoping to get something more from this whole endeavor?  Sadly, yes.

But the other thing I wanted to talk about was the actual content of the longlist.  As a lot of people have pointed out, one of the noteworthy things about this list is how many of the books have a ‘partner,’ so let’s run through that:

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Circe & The Silence of the Girls: very literal Greek mythology retellings that take a traditionally male dominated story and reframe it through a feminist lens.

35959740 37969723 36203384

Circe & The Silence of the Girls & Swan Song: feminist retellings in a broader sense, reclaiming women’s voices.

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Milkman & Bottled Goods: women under surveillance living under strict governmental regimes.

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Remembered & Praise Song for the Butterflies: slavery and rape in historical fiction that are underscored by a note of resilience.

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An American Marriage & Ordinary People & Normal People: relationships crumbling under the strain of contemporary life and the inability to communicate with one’s partner.

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The Pisces & Freshwater: incisive commentary on womanhood and a revitalization of their respective genres (romance and bildungsroman) by introducing a theme of magic.

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Lost Children Archive & Ghost Wall: children and parents, the relationship between the individual and society, commentary on how the past has shaped the present.

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Ghost Wall & My Sister, The Serial Killer: short and punchy novellas with commentary on gender roles.

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Number One Chinese Restaurant & Remembered: family sagas.

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Circe, The Silence of the Girls, Freshwater, Remembered, Praise Song for the Butterflies, An American Marriage: Books about Big Issues: rape, slavery, immigration, incarceration, etc.

The reason I’m bringing up the content and all the overlap is because I’m always curious about what exactly goes into the decision to put a book on a longlist: how much are these books being evaluated in isolation, and how much are they being judged collectively?  Because it seems significant that with a few exceptions, these books only have one lone thematic partner: was Washington Black left off because they felt they’d already ticked the slavery box; was Everything Under left off because they felt they couldn’t have three watery magical realism books?  Was Severance left off because futuristic zombie dystopia would have been too much of an oddball compared to the rest?

After reading all of these books, I’m left with the impression that this year’s longlist feels a bit too curated.  I feel like the judges had certain salient themes in mind that they wanted to see represented on the list, and weren’t willing to stretch too far outside those parameters.  Of course, this could all be coincidental, maybe the judges truly believe that these 16 books are the ‘best’ books by women published in the last year.  I just… find that doubtful.

I think the bottom line is that when I saw the shortlist, I saw a few daring choices on there – Freshwater, The Pisces, Bottled Goods – and erroneously concluded that it was going to be a daring list, which I think is partially why I’m disappointed that it ended up feeling so safe.  ‘Safe’ is a word I kept coming back to while talking about the shortlist, but after finally finishing the longlist, it seems relevant here too.

So that’s it from me – please do let me know your thoughts on the longlist, shortlist, or any and all things Women’s Prize.  I’ll post my winner prediction closer to the winner announcement!

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34 thoughts on “Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist Reflections

  1. Safe is definitely the right word for the list, sadly. Like you, I don’t regret reading them all; as a project is was lots of fun! But, also like you, my favourite from the bunch (Ghost Wall) is the only one I read long before the list was announced, and my next favourite (Normal People), I already fully intended to read anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love this, great discussion with which I totally agree. I think your top six books are also mine (although I wouldn’t give any of them five stars except for Milkman, but that might be to do with discrepancies in star ratings!) I originally included An American Marriage in my top six, but having now read The Pisces and half of Normal People, I’m confident that I personally would have shortlisted both, so something has to go.

    The reasoning behind the pairings just doesn’t make any sense (though I commend your effort in trying to make sense of it!). If they wanted to avoid thematic parallels, why are there so many? And why did they ignore Melmoth, Old Baggage and The Western Wind, which have no obvious pairings on the list and yet all deserve to be there?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m definitely very lenient with my star ratings! 5 stars for me kind of just means ‘really damn good’ – I then use my ‘favorites’ shelf on Goodreads to distinguish the real winners. But that’s funny that we (roughly) have the same top six, especially since I feel like I’ve been seeing a lot of Silence of the Girls hate recently (usually of the ‘too much Achilles’ variety, which… I have thoughts on that, but anyway, I’m glad I’m not the only one with TSOTG in my top 6). And I’m excited to hear your final thoughts on Normal People!

      The repetition on this list is just baffling and yes, weirdly contradictory; ok, so clearly rape culture and #MeToo parallels in historical fiction is a big topic but how is there room for TWO myth retellings over a number of more innovative titles…??? And I talked about this in my shortlist reaction post but when you have a set of two eerily similar books, why not judge them against each other and then advance only one of the two…? So yes, ‘trying’ to make sense of this is definitely the operative word. I’m still stumped.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just finished Normal People! Four stars from me, which means I really liked it (& I liked it better than Conversations with Friends) but sadly also means it has failed the 4.5 star challenge 🙂 I’ll definitely be reviewing it on my blog soon.

        Liked by 1 person

      • As you can see from how my last 5 star challenge went, I am hardly one to judge! Really looking forward to your thoughts though especially if you talk about it in conjunction with Conversations With Friends – I loved them both but I am firmly team CWF if I had to choose.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I can solidly recommend half the list, and recommend you skip the other half! But there are a lot of great books to be found here to be fair, all my critiquing aside.

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  3. All the pairings you talk about are actually super interesting. I feel like for awards like this, they generally try to stay away from having too many similar books. It definitely seems curated, like you said.

    But I guess six five-star and two four-star books is still pretty good overall! I’m hoping to read The Silence of the Girls soon! It’s just been sitting on my bedside table, waiting for me

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so strange – it’s like they said ‘we can have two similar books but ONLY TWO’ and then used that criteria to omit others that would have been worthwhile additions…? Like, why draw the line at two, why not just compare the myth retellings at the beginning and say ‘this one is better’ and only let ONE on the longlist? It is baffling to me.

      I really hope you enjoy The Silence of the Girls though, I thought it was wonderful!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a GREAT post.
    My ranked list turned out very similar to yours, and I completely agree about the half I read beforehand being the better half; I was also disappointed by the lack of any secret standouts showing up after my decision to complete the longlist. Your pairings look spot-on.

    I find the question you raise about how much of the list is chosen by looking at each title independently, and how much is added because of the picture it paints as a whole, a highly interesting one. If ever a list seemed to have been chosen because of the way its titles fit together, this has got to be it. Which I find very disheartening, tbh. I tend to enjoy finding books with interesting juxtaposition or that seem to be speaking to each other, but while I enjoyed making those connections with the longlist, I must say that the shortlist felt like too concentrated a dose of it, by the time I was ready to move on from the trend. I suppose at the very least, I’m glad that I managed to finish reading just before the shortlist announcement because I’m not sure I would have been inspired to continue afterward. It’s too bad the list this year wasn’t a more rewarding experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tried to do a firm ranking and I just failed miserably which is why I ended up listing them like that – like, how in good conscience could I put anything above Milkman when I’ve been going on and on about Milkman for the last year, even though I wanted Ghost Wall to win since it’s a lesser known book…? Too many factors, I got stressed and gave up. My ‘in order of preference’ and ‘in order of what I wanted to win’ lists were startlingly different.

      But yes, I agree completely – it’s always interesting to see trends emerge in groups of books, but in this list it just felt a bit too curated? I think the 2018 Booker makes for an interesting contrast, because there were a lot of thematically similar books on there (I felt like xenophobia was a biggy in that group – Furious City, The Water Cure, Washington Black, Sabrina, Low and Quiet Sea, etc) but none of those books paired together in such an obvious way that made any of them feel redundant for their content alone?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Curated is a good word for it. I loved the Booker longlist as a whole, and how each of the titles seemed to feature character(s) who felt out of place. Which does match up pretty well with the xenophobia theme you mention, which is probably a more accurate way of summing it up. But yes, none of those books felt like duplicates at all, and looking back, my favorites from the Women’s Prize longlist this year were the ones that felt most unique, in almost every case. Of course, I’m pretty new to the considering-the-entire-longlist game; even before deciding to read an entire list I didn’t spend much time comparing all of the books as part of a whole. The Women’s Prize longlist this year will certainly be an experience to remember going forward, though I do hope it’ll turn out to be an outlier.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I really hope it’s an outlier too! Last year’s Women’s Prize list was kind of the inverse of this year’s for me – the longlist was meh (though I only read 11/16 iirc) but the shortlist was insanely good. So I’m sure I would have been more frustrated with it had I actually pushed through the entire list last year, but on the whole I felt pretty good with it after ending it on such a high. I was hoping that the shortlist would help recapture that feeling again this year, but that does not appear to be in the cards… though of course I’m already mentally preparing myself to do this again next year.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s an interesting comparison. I did not get around to very much of the Women’s Prize longlist last year (although I still have The Idiot and Elmet waiting impatiently on my shelf…) so I can’t really make any fair judgment. I don’t see myself reading the entire list every year, because as soon as I set that expectation I’m going to feel like the constraint of the list is impossible to stick to. But I am also already looking forward to next year’s list (perhaps even moreso than finding out which of the shortlisters will win this year), so hopefully I’ll “impulsively” decide to read them all again when the time rolls around. I’m definitely intrigued to find out how longlists in different years will stack up next to each other for me, since I haven’t had that experience yet.

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  5. YES to this entire post. That is exactly what I’ve been trying to put into words – there are amazing books in this selection, but looking at all of them together, especially after one has read them and noticed the similarities a bit more, it’s disappointing. I was far more excited about reading the longlist in the beginning, and grow a bit tired of it at this point, although there are two books I’m really looking forward to reading still (Ghost Wall & Freshwater).

    It’s a pity that this list looks like an agenda. Let’s hope next year it’s different.

    Also “watery magical realism” is my favorite expression now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh you’re lucky you saved those both until the end, they’re brilliant!

      But you’re completely right that this list looks like an agenda, that’s a good way of putting it. It’s like they had a list of themes and genres they wanted covered and then went through a checklist. Even if it happened more organically than that, why didn’t they step back toward the end and say ‘hey, we have TWO eerily similar Greek mythology retellings in here, maybe we should decide right now which one gets the job done better and then make room for the wildly inventive Severance by Ling Ma’??

      Liked by 1 person

      • PRECISELY. Even if it wasn’t on purpose, someone surely could have pointed out that there were too many Greek retellings… also I’m a bit disappointed that a book on women’s writings got so focused on relationships with men… Surely that is interesting and brilliantly done for some of these books, but I wanted to see MORE. Books about careers and travelling and science etc…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I am in love with this post. (And a bit grumpy because now you’ve already put my thoughts into words much better than I could have done, so what am I supposed to write about once I finally finish the longlist – if I ever do manage that. Also, I jest, obvs.)
    You know I agree with your assessment of obvious pairings and I also agree that this was fine for the longlist, maybe but definitely not for the shortlist. The shortlist really managed to thoroughly take away my motivation. I am determined though to make it through the last 4 books. Especially because TSOTG is INSANELY good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Please do a longlist reflections post anyway, because I am SO looking forward to it! It’s funny that we came to all of the same conclusions even when our feelings on the individual books diverged a bit (but even then, I think we mostly agreed – I think I mainly just liked Ghost Wall more).

      And I keep saying it but I am SO happy you are team TSOTG. It’s brilliant!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I definitely will. I’ll just have to think of another way of structuring it. But I have not read (or will have read) 16 books to then not write about it.
        We did mostly agree! (We often do!) I was just a bit more grumpy about it.

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