First thoughts: I find this list disproportionately concentrated towards white writers. There are only five writers of colour shortlisted, when there were seven last year. This is made worse by a bunching towards a kind of middle-class white British novel which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but feels a bit much when there are so many on the list (Unsettled Ground, Small Pleasures, The Golden Rule). I note that there were a similar run of novels this year either set in Uganda and/or written by Ugandan women, none of which appear on the list (Kololo Hill, We Are All Birds of Uganda, The First Woman).
On a purely personal note, while I think it’s still better than last year’s longlist, I find this list disappointing because it contains a number of writers who I haven’t got on with in the past (Amanda Craig, Claire Fuller) or who I used to get on with but no longer do (Ali Smith), or books that I had already decided not to read (Burnt Sugar, Luster). I don’t think all of these books and writers are objectively bad, but I would have loved to see more books on the list that were new to me or that I was keen to read. I have only read two books from the longlist already, a new low for me, but one that perhaps indicates that the judges’ interests and mine are tending in opposite directions.
However, I am absolutely thrilled that the two titles I most wanted to see on this list, Piranesi and Transcendent Kingdom, are both here, and the Prize has also highlighted a few books that were vaguely on my radar but that I’m now even more excited to read (Exciting Times, Consent, Detransition, Baby).
I am not planning to read the whole longlist this year, or even to try and read as many titles from the longlist as I sometimes do. The Jhalak Prize has also just announced an interesting longlist, and I’d like to get some of those in rather than solely reading Women’s Prize titles. However, here are my thoughts and plans:
The Ones I’ve Read
- Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom. We all know how I feel about this incredibly clever and incredibly emotional novel about a Ghanaian neuroscientist struggling with the legacy of her brother’s drug addiction and her family’s Pentecostal faith. I would have been furious if this hadn’t been longlisted, and it’s a sure candidate for the shortlist.
- Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half. This hit novel about two African-American twin sisters, one of whom chooses to leave her family and pass as white, deserves to be on the longlist and possibly even the shortlist, but it didn’t blow me away and I do feel it’s been overhyped. I think this would be a very safe, boring choice as winner, so I hope the Prize don’t go that route.
The Ones I Already Wanted To Read
- Susanna Clarke, Piranesi. I have this tale of a magical labyrinth ready to go on my Kindle, so it will probably be one of the next books I pick up. I’m glad to see the Prize shortlisting something more speculative, and while I didn’t completely adore Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (wonderful worldbuilding, limited characterisation) I’m so intrigued by Clarke’s second novel, which sounds completely different.
- Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times. I’ve been hesitating over this novel, which follows a young Irish woman in Hong Kong, for some time, as I was worried it would be another ‘millennial disaster novel’, and I am thoroughly sick of those. However, good reviews by bloggers I trust have won me over, and Dolan has just written an incredibly insightful piece about being autistic in the Guardian, which makes me more interested in her as a writer.
The Ones I Now Want To Read
- Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures. When this one was announced, my initial reaction was ‘Oh no!’. I then tried to work out why I felt this way, as I haven’t read anything by Chambers. I then realised, to my shame, that I have been subconsciously avoiding Chambers’ work because she has the same time as a Cambridge philosopher I really don’t like. So apologies to this Clare Chambers, who is not a faux-feminist liberal philosopher, and has actually written a book that sounds quite interesting! Small Pleasures, set in 1957, is about a young woman who claims to have experienced a virgin birth, and the journalist investigating her claims.
- Annabel Lyon, Consent. I hadn’t heard of this before, but I think it sounds great! It traces the dynamics between two sets of sisters, and promises themes of duty, responsibility, and consent.
- Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby. Peters is the first trans woman to be longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I’d vaguely heard of this novel before, but this has put it firmly on my radar. It focuses on a trans woman, Reese, her detransitioned partner, Ames, and his boss, Katrina. I’m particularly interested by a novel that considers the experience of trans and detransitioned people alongside each other.
The Ones I Still Don’t Want To Read
- Avni Doshi, Burnt Sugar. I already gave this a miss when it was on the Booker shortlist (and to be honest, that list was so awful that the very fact of it being shortlisted put me off it further). It examines the difficult, complicated relationship between a mother and her daughter, and I’m not really keen to read more about motherhood at the moment, plus it had a lot of lukewarm reviews when it first came out.
- Dawn French, Because of You. OK, so I always have one ‘what were the judges thinking?’ moment with the Women’s Prize, and this was it for 2021. I can see they’ve already been talking about how prizes aren’t only for literary fiction, to which I say: what are prizes for, then? As I have written previously, I do not think that literary fiction is superior to commercial fiction, or that reading it makes you a better person. I also don’t think that literary and genre fiction are neatly separated (I have often said the Prize should longlist more genre fiction that’s on the literary end, like Tana French’s crime novels, or Becky Chambers’s SF). However, I do think there is a REASON we have the category of literary fiction, because it requires a different quality of attention, and signals to the reader what to expect from a book. Commercial writers sell better and have a bigger audience than literary writers (which is great, reaching more people is incredibly important) and so prizes are one way that literary writers can try and find some kind of audience for their work. I haven’t read French’s novel, so I can’t really judge it, but given her existing fame, I can’t help but feel that this slot could have been better used for a writer who really needs it.
- Raven Leilani, Luster. I know this ‘millennial disaster woman’ book diverges from the others by being about a black woman rather than the white default, which is great, but I still don’t want to read any more dysfunctional women being dysfunctional books.
- Claire Fuller, Unsettled Ground. I liked Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days but really did not like Bitter Orange, which I found hackneyed and miserable. The blurb for this one – middle-aged twins living in rural isolation – doesn’t appeal to me at all, so I’ll be giving it a miss. Fuller is a great prose writer, though.
- Cherie Jones, How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. I feel bad about skipping this one, because it’s the kind of book I’d definitely have read in previous years of the Prize. But the blurb sounds gritty and violent, tracing the hard lives of married women in Barbados, and I’m not especially drawn to it.
- Kathleen MacMahon, Nothing But Blue Sky. I hadn’t heard of this at all before it was longlisted, and I do often like to try these kind of picks by the Prize, as they’re often very interesting. However, this quiet story of a man reflecting on his marriage after his wife’s death just doesn’t attract me enough right now.
- Patricia Lockwood, No-One Is Talking About This. I’m sure this is actually very good, but much like millennial disaster women, I’m not up for books about social media at the moment.
- Ali Smith, Summer. I love much of Ali Smith’s earlier work – Hotel World, Girl Meets Boy, There But For The, even her more recent How To Be Both – but she is a bit hit and miss for me, and her seasonal quartet is definitely a miss, so I won’t be reading this.
- Amanda Craig, The Golden Rule. So, I quite liked Craig’s Hearts and Minds when I read it back in my early twenties (I suspect I wouldn’t be so keen now), and decided to try her earlier novel Love in Idleness. It was absolutely terrible – full of middle-class self-absorption and prejudice. Her later work sounds like more of the same.
The Ones That Should Have Been On The Longlist
For me, the most notable omissions are Emily St John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel and Emma Donoghue’s The Pull of the Stars, both superb novels that deserved a slot. (I know Donoghue got a lot of hype for Room, but I feel like she hasn’t had the attention she deserves since – her brilliant novel Akin was also ignored by prize juries).
I would also have loved to see Meng Jin’s Little Gods, Tara June Winch’s The Yield, and/or one of the Ugandan novels I mentioned above.
The Ones I’m Glad Not To See On The Longlist
There are actually quite a few this year that I’m deeply relieved are not here! Megha Majumdar’s A Burning was widely predicted, but it really isn’t very good. I also thought Danielle McLaughlin’s The Art of Falling was incredibly flat. And even though I put it on my wishlist, I’ve since read Fiona Mozley’s Hot Stew and was disappointed – the morality was too black and white for me – so I’m glad it isn’t here either.
What are your thoughts on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist?