The Women’s Prize Longlist, 2021

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The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist 2021 has been announced! Here are some other bloggers’ reactions: Rachel, Claire, Emily.

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 CraigThe 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 Starsboth 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 GodsTara 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?

38 thoughts on “The Women’s Prize Longlist, 2021

  1. I think deciding not to commit to this year’s list has actually made me more excited for it, since there are lots of titles that I want to get to eventually anyway, regardless of if they now advance to the shortlist or not. Like you, I’m disappointed by how white the list is though, and would have loved to see more countries represented.

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  2. I’m also disappointed by this longlist. I had so many books I’d rather see on there. Also I really hate the whole disaster women genre of fiction and I feel like Luster and Exciting Times are very much in that vein. I’m going to try and read as much of the list as I can but my library stocks none of these so that might put a stop to things haha

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  3. I want to read the same three as you, but I think I will also try the Jones, Leilani and MacMahon. My library has copies of all three, so why not? (It’s a shame you don’t have that option.) Interesting to hear of your experience with Claire Fuller; I won’t try to convince you to read this one, because I think it’s the weakest of her four novels, exposition-heavy and bleak, though I still love her work in general. I’ll look out for your thoughts on any more nominees that you do manage to read.

    P.S. I don’t know if you saw, but Eric is already calling the whole thing for Transcendent Kingdom, which would be amazing! I’m not entirely sure I trust this judging panel, though. It’s hard to predict what would even make the shortlist from this lot.

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    • Would obviously love that result!

      It isn’t the longlist I would have expected from this panel, no. It makes me wonder how far it was a compromise list, and I also clocked Evaristo’s comment that she would have liked to see more experimental fiction, so it sounds like what was submitted from publishers wasn’t necessarily that diverse either.

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      • I forgot to say, I’m so glad I now don’t have to push myself to finish A Burning! Once the longlist came out and they weren’t on it, I let myself DNF that and three other debuts by women that I wasn’t enjoying.

        That’s a good point — we don’t know what was submitted; maybe publishers played it safe this year. And of course it’s difficult for low-budget indies to get a look-in. I also noted an interesting line in the WP terms and conditions which made me think that each judge might get a pet pick or two through to the longlist: “For inclusion in this longlist, a title should have the full support of at least one judge in whose opinion it is a valid contender for the shortlist.” Whereas I would hope that to get to the shortlist a book would need to have unanimous support.

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  4. Loved reading your thoughts! I agree that the list is very white, and it was so surprising, definitely thought it would be more diverse. But overall, it’s a list that is much more to my taste than last year’s and I already have six of these on my TBR, with another 5 I can be convinced to read. I am definitely not reading the whole list, but i am really glad to see some of the titles on here.

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    • It’s funny, because I was much more enthusiastic about last year’s list when it was initially announced, then ended up hating most of it 🙂 I think I’ve been unlucky in that so many of these titles hit themes I’m not personally interested in or are by authors I don’t get on with.

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  5. Exciting Times is absolutely worth it, which I say as someone deeply skeptical of Rooney-adjacent/disaster women novels. Small Pleasures is also marvelous and has been rather overlooked til now; it was the last book I read in 2020 and I honestly really, really rate it!

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    • As soon as I actually read what Small Pleasures was about, rather than automatically avoiding it, I was really keen! And your enthusiasm about Exciting Times has definitely encouraged me to read it; I’ll probably pick it up after Piranesi.

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  6. Like you, I’ve read Transcendent Kingdom and The Vanishing Half and completely agree with your assessment of both of them. The former is one of the best books, I’ve read for a while. I don’t mean to read the longlist; based on the blurb nothing really stands out. But I’ll probably pick a few, with Piranesi being one of them.

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  7. I love your point about literary vs. commercial fiction in book prizes. On the one hand I think including a few more commercial types can perhaps help garner a bigger audience for the list as a whole and thus entice more readers to the literary highlights, but I was also frustrated with how very commercial last year’s list felt and agree that there are many more exciting literary books that missed this year’s list which I would’ve rather seen than the Dawn French or those English mysteries which may be good books but would surely do well enough on their own. Literary writing seems like it requires its own particular brand of talent to pull off (though I think you’re right about there not being a clear line between literary and genre fiction) and that is the work I’d most like to see boosted by prizes of this sort as well. It’s great seeing some genre-leaning work like Piranesi on the list, but I do prefer there still to be a literary element, as you mention.
    Loved seeing your thoughts and plans, and feel very much in agreement. I’ll look forward to your thoughts on the titles you’re interested in picking up!

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    • Really interesting point! I completely agree that something I really like (or did like…) about the WP is its willingness to include genre fiction that the likes of the Booker wouldn’t touch. But I do want these genre books to be towards the literary end. Piranesi is definitely a great addition, though I’d still love to see more actual SF/fantasy!

      I’ve been thinking about why I initially felt much more positive about last year’s list than this one, and I think it was the diversity of genre. There was a lot more historical fiction, a Greek myth retelling, and even a novel that bordered on crime fiction (Djinn Patrol). Unfortunately a lot of these books turned out to not be very good, but on first glance I preferred the breadth of the list. This year it feels very hemmed in by the contemporary, either leaning towards reflective inner-life narratives or the middlebrow novels I mentioned before. I am excited about reading some of these picks, but it feels a bit insular.

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      • Ah, same!

        That makes sense. Personally I was less enthused about the historical fiction and Greek retelling last year so seeing less of those categories this year was exciting for me, and contemporary is probably the category I mind the least as far as reading it repetitively- but with those specific preferences aside, I would agree in general about wanting the list to veer away from being too one-note! Finding so many motherhood connections between last year’s books was EXHAUSTING. I’d be curious to know whether/how the judges look at the group of books as a whole and approach redundancies in content (and even in author rep). Though it might be tricky having to choose between similar books that might each be brilliant, and perhaps snub a worthy title in the process, it would be great to see more of a range in the overall list. And it certainly seems like they’d attract more readers with a something-for-everyone approach! More genres and topics can definitely be included without sacrificing the quality of the work being highlighted, I’d wager.

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        • It’s odd, I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction and I DEFINITELY didn’t want to see another Greek retelling, but I did like the variety, as you say. And I think they’d absolutely get more readers!

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  8. I loved reading your thoughts! I was initially quite happy with this list but the longer I sit with it, the less I am. It does work more for my personal tastes than last year’s list did (althought that one didn’t seem to work for anybody…) – I do love a good disaster woman book and so far have not properly tired of it. I was hoping we’d get more experimental books, given the kind of books Evaristo writes but alas, that does not seem to be the case at all. I also agree with how disappointingly white and US and UK centric this list is. Good thing I had already decided not to read them all!

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    • Last year’s list looked a lot more appealing to me initially because of the breadth of genre and subject-matter, but yeah, we know how that turned out! Evaristo commented that she was disappointed in the lack of experimental fiction submitted from publishers.

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  9. How interesting to read your views. I hope you get to read Piranesi – as you know I adored it, but it is a bit weird for a lot of readers. I’ve only read that plus Naoise Dolan which is so witty. I have Clare Chambers and am currently reading Claire Fuller (her first is still her best, the second excellent too). The other two I really want to read are those by Annabel Lyon and Britt Bennett. Ironically I have a signed copy of the Dawn French which I bought as a Christmas present for a relative – then we decided not to do presents – I will read it, as I enjoyed her second novel, but I would be unlikely to pick it up otherwise.

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  11. Great post! I can’t imagine what goes through the minds of the judges to decide to put Amanda Craig’s book but not Emily St. John Mandel’s (or other just as brilliant authors’). Also I could not quite put my finger on what bothered me about the French book nomination, but you nailed it: given her popularity & fame, I do wish this book’s nomination had been given to another, more obscure, more daring literary work.

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  12. I’m definitely with you on the ones I wouldn’t want to read. My friend Claire just read Small Pleasures and it made her FURIOUS and she told me all about it so I’m adding that to the don’t want list! And I agree there are good genre novels then there’s very light commercial fiction and one type of book has more of a place on this list …

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  13. A great analysis! I didn’t know that Fuller’s Unsettled Ground was about twins. Since I am very interested in all stories about twins, I may take a look! But, Jonathan Strange? Limited characterisation? 🙂 That is very surprising. I think that Piranesi is not that different from Jonathan Strange at all. It is just that, essentially, thematically and relations-wise, only minus all the Jonathan Strange’s characterisation.

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    • It’s a long time since I read Jonathan Strange, but IIRC, I was frustrated that Strange and Norrell slotted so neatly into good and bad. I wanted Norrell to be right about much more. It has a fun secondary cast, though.

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