Thoughts on the Women’s Prize Longlist, 2023

The Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist 2023 has been announced!

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The new logo for the Women’s Prize kind of sums up why I’m breaking up with it.

First Thoughts: This longlist makes me sad. I had already decided not to shadow the Women’s Prize this year, but this list finally, properly confirms something that I’ve been gradually realising over the last couple years: the Women’s Prize is no longer for me. I’ve really loved shadowing the Prize over the years, but it has changed significantly since the first list I partly shadowed, back in 2009. After some especially superb longlists in 2014 and 2018, the Prize has been going downhill for me ever since, and although I always discover at least one interesting novel through it, the amount of work I put in to read extensively from the longlist is resulting in diminishing returns.

This feels especially sad because the Women’s Prize was ‘my prize’, and with the demise of the Wellcome Book Prize, there’s no longer a literary prize I really relate to. I loved the Women’s Prize focus on more readable literary fiction, but I guess it has gone too readable, too issues-led for me. There’s a sense in this list that the Prize wants palatable feminist narratives that may not be written by white women but are certainly aimed at a white, Global North audience – and I want books that challenge and unsettle me more than that.

I’m also especially suspicious, this year, that a lot of these writers seem to have ended up here after being previously longlisted or shortlisted (Paull, McKenzie, Kingsolver, O’Farrell, Haynes).

So I won’t be reading from the list this year unless it highlights something I think I would have read anyway… but nevertheless, here are my thoughts.

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The Ones I’ve Read

Louise Kennedy, Trespasses. This Troubles-set novel felt to me like something you might study on a creative writing MA; the writing is admirable, the sense of place evocative, and yet I never emotionally connected with it. I could see too clearly how Kennedy had put it together. My short review is here.

Cecile Pin, Wandering Souls. I finished reading this a few hours before the longlist was announced and I’m hugely frustrated to see it on the list. It follows siblings Anh, Thanh and Minh who flee Vietnam for Thatcher’s Britain in 1979 as part of the wave of ‘boat people’ who left the country after the end of the Vietnam War. Like too many intergenerational family sagas, this is so thinly written: the protagonists are not characterised beyond their position in the family and the 80s setting never comes alive either. Its simplistic politics seems designed to appeal to white British readers who might learn something about East Asian refugees to the UK, but will ultimately be reassured by a familiar story of a fundamentally decent British population who welcome immigrants to their shores. My Goodreads review is here.

Parini Shroff, The Bandit Queens. I’m about a third of the way through this at the moment and my full review will be coming, but I’m so disappointed. I loved the blurb for this: ‘For Geeta, life as a widow is more peaceful than life as a wife… Until the other wives in her village decide they want to be widows, too’.  But The Bandit Queens is not the dark satire that this promises but a much more conventional novel. There’s a predictable romance, a cute dog, ‘kickass’ women. As Srivalli Rekha writes in her brilliant Goodreads review, this sells ideas about a dirty, miserable India to a white Western audience, but also feels profoundly jarring, as the women switch between more traditional desi language and Americanised slang. Maybe it’ll pick up, but I don’t think it will.

The Ones I Already Wanted To Read

Sheena Patel, I’m A Fan. I actually bought this a couple days ago after hearing Sheena talk at the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts! I usually steer well clear of hyper-contemporary novels that deal with The Social Media, but I loved Sheena’s reading from the novel at NCLA, and this sounds genuinely insightful. I do hope I will be a fan.

Maggie O’Farrell, The Marriage Portrait. I did not like Hamnet, and I don’t rate O’Farrell as a historical novelist, but I’m a completist and I’ve read all her other books. The setting – Renaissance Italy – is at least more interesting to me than Elizabethan England.

Sophie Mackintosh, Cursed Bread. I was impressed by Mackintosh’s prose in Blue Ticketand I like the pitch for this one: it focuses on a mass poisoning of a French village, possibly via spoiled bread. The reviews make me a little hesitant, though, so this is a maybe for me.

The Ones I Now Want To Read

Jacqueline Crooks, Fire Rush. I hesitated over this when it turned up on NetGalley but I do like the blurb. It promises to focus on a young Jamaican woman in the 1980s, who finds herself when she goes raving at a dub reggae club in London but ultimately collides with institutional racism and police violence.

Jennifer Croft, Homesick. This book (Paul Fulcher’s Goodreads review does a good job of disentangling the ‘is it a novel or a memoir‘ debate) promises to focus on two sisters, one of whom suffers from mysterious seizures. I like books about sisters and medical stuff (yes, thoughtful literary commentary there).

The Ones I Still Don’t Want To Read

Laline Paull, Pod. I did not enjoy Paull’s The Beeswhich read like a bad YA dystopia, and while I had more mixed feelings about her second novel, The Icethere’s no way I’m picking up a book by her from the point of view of a dolphin.

Elizabeth McKenzie, The Dog of the North. I hated the blurb of this one as soon as I heard it – it’s about a quirky road trip (NOOOOOO). Then I realised it was by the author of A Portable Veblenwhich baffled me with its pointless weirdness. Absolutely not.

Camilla Grudova, Children of Paradise. I would like to read something by Grudova but I’m not pulled in by this tale of misfits haunting an abandoned cinema.

NoViolet Bulawayo, Glory. I wasn’t impressed by Bulawayo’s We Need New Names and I’m definitely not attracted by another book with talking animals, that sounds like it will have a simplistic message.

Priscilla Morris, Black Butterflies. To be fair this doesn’t sound bad but I’m not excited by the blurb. It focuses on the siege of Sarajevo in 1992 through the eyes of an artist and teacher, Zora.

Tara M. Stringfellow, Memphis. Another intergenerational family saga set in the American South. I don’t trust the judges’ taste enough to try this.

Natalie Haynes, Stone Blind. A Greek myth retelling by a writer whose previous Greek myth retelling (A Thousand Ships) I did not like? Sorry, no.

Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead. So I have loved many of Kingsolver’s novels but I struggle when she becomes preachy. This sounds like it might be preachy, and David Copperfield is probably my least favourite novel ever, so I’ll be skipping this one.

The Ones That Should Have Been On The Longlist

Well we all know that Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow WAS ROBBED. This never felt ‘Women’s Prize’ to me, so I’m not hugely surprised not to see it here, but depressed, as ever, that the Prize shuns anything with even a hint of speculative imagination.

I also think Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions For YouJulia May Jonas’s VladimirElaine Hsieh Chou’s Disorientationand Natasha Pulley’s The Half Life of Valery K (another one they would NEVER actually longlist) deserved to be here.

The Ones I’m Glad Not To See On The Longlist

I mean… there are a few but given the quality of the longlist, I’m not sure it could be much worse.

What are your thoughts on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist?

Also check out Cathy’s and Rebecca’s thoughts.

30 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Women’s Prize Longlist, 2023

  1. I agree with so much of what you say. The longlist feels VERY issues led and nothing in it really appeals to me. I liked Trespasses more than you did so am glad to see it there. I’m halfway through Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow and it feels like the kind of book the Women’s Prize would have been all over a few years ago! I really didn’t like Demon Copperhead. It never transcended the gimmick of being a retelling and it was incredibly preachy. I’d like to read I’m a Fan, Cursed Bread and Homesick, but little else appeals.

    Liked by 2 people

    • To be fair to Trespasses, although I didn’t connect with it I do think it deserves to be here. It’s certainly streets ahead of the other two I’ve read!

      The WP has always been shy of anything that feels SFF or speculative, but it’s got so much worse. (I know Tomorrowx3 isn’t technically a speculative novel but it deals so closely with imaginary worlds that it has that feel to me). One of Becky Chambers’ SF novels got longlisted back in 2016 – that just wouldn’t happen now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great post on this prize, which reflects my own lack of enthusiasm over it. I’m looking forward more to the longlist for the international booker. Your line “there’s no way I’m picking up a book by her from the point of view of a dolphin” made me laugh!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gutted not to see Zevin, and disappointed not to see Catton and Makkai (which I haven’t read yet). I feel very indifferent (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) about this list too—not mad or sad about it, just eh—which seems to resonate with your sense that the Prize is no longer really “for” you, as a reader. The issues-led-ness and the palatability to white Global North readers seems like a major shift in focus. I understand it completely; it just doesn’t interest me. (I’m vaguely interested in Children of Paradise but not enough to make much of an effort to find it. Meanwhile I absolutely hated Laline Paull’s last, which Pod doesn’t sound like an evolution from, and continue to be unimpressed by Sophie Mackintosh’s work both in concept and execution.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like we are very much on the same page! I guess I’m sad because I don’t resonate with the more literary prizes either; the WP always felt like a great in-between space between the VERY SERIOUS literariness of the Booker and the commercialism of the Costa. I’m also sad that SFF and spec fic seem more and more stuck in the SF-specific prize lists, at a time, when (as Cathy says above) speculative elements are increasingly infiltrating ‘mainstream’ fiction.

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  5. I rolled my eyes at their ‘new’ pink logo. And have you seen their IWD giveaway?? It’s of KNICKERS! Disappointing to see that “women’s” = “girly” in their minds.

    I’ve always liked prizes that are cross-genre, like the Barbellion, Dylan Thomas, Folio and Young Writer. The Wellcome was particularly good about that, as you say, and I still miss it but have finally come to terms with the fact that it’s not coming back. You have found it rewarding to follow the Jhalak Prize in the past, I think?

    I didn’t realize what the Mackintosh was about (sounds like the same incident that inspired Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns), but The Water Cure was so bad I don’t think I can read her again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh dear about the knickers!

      I’ve tried following the Jhalak Prize a few times but the quality hasn’t been as high as I’d like. Probably unsurprising given the barriers to writers of colour getting published in Britain.

      Dylan Thomas is one of those that skews too experimental literary for me, but I do sometimes like Young Writer! Unfortunately I really disagree with its entry criteria though!

      I haven’t read The Water Cure – I can see you and Elle both hated it! I had a good-ish experience with Blue Ticket so I might give her one more go.

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  6. I haven’t read any of these titles yet, so I don’t fully know what to make of the list. I am still hopeful that the ones I wanted to see (especially I’m A Fan) will be good, and that there are a few pleasant surprises lurking amidst the several admittedly odd-sounding choices (truly never expected to see Elizabeth McKenzie on the list again, nor so many talking animals). I do think that out of the bigger name titles that people were expecting to see, though, they chose the least interesting-sounding ones (the Kingsolver and the O’Farrell). I wish I knew if Tomorrow x3 was even submitted for consideration, because I would have loved it to have made the list.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I just went down a rabbit hole after reading your post. I read the review of the Indian book that you hyperlinked because it’s on my TBR. The author of that book review makes a lot of great points, and I left her a comment asking if she or he could tell me a book by an Indian author that isn’t about a domineering father, a passive mother, and a young woman who is being forced to marry or is shamed for being fat. I am surprised that many of you keep reading the women’s prize long list. Every year you guys are so disappointed, so I would think that you would move on to a different prize. Is there one that’s sort of local to you? Have you ever served on a prize board? That might be something that you could do that would be interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, I’m definitely not reading the WP longlist this year! 🙂 As I’ve discussed above, I’m struggling to find another prize that works for me – though I just saw the Shields Prize longlist and really liked that.

      I would LOVE to serve on a prize board. Sadly I don’t think I can wangle my way to doing so at the moment – no small local prizes round my way!

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  9. I felt meh when I saw it (though mainly due to my NetGalley habit, I fear, I’m never quite sure which books would have a chance of appearing on it but don’t). I am STILL unsure about Fire Rush and it’s next on my NG TBR – but if it’s Too Much for me I will put it down. I have the Kingsolver to read but it’s interesting I haven’t yet. Matthew who famously re-read Copperfield first keeps telling me it’s depressing and I did not bring it on holiday (mind you, I brought How Green Was My Valley …).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. definitely agree about not feeling like you really have a prize you can relate to anymore — ive been feeling increasingly disillusioned with book prizes lately; i have a hard time reading something that im not interested in just because it was nominated for a prize, so ive just decided to read whatever i want and follow these prizes out of curiosity about who will win, but not much more.

    this year’s women’s prize longlist in particular just feels so *uninspired*, and a lot of the choices they made seem so predictable to me (Maggie O’Farrell? in the women’s prize longlist? groundbreaking 🙄). ive also been feeling that in the past couple of years the women’s prize has skewed very commercial in a way that’s really interfering with the quality of their longlists. i get the sense that they chose these books because they have the broadest appeal/most commercial potential, which doesnt necessarily mean those books will be bad, but i feel like in a lot of cases that translates to very watered down narratives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, completely agree! Much more focus on the commercial aspect of the prize. It’s so funny that after they ignored O’Farrell for decades (when she was writing much better stuff) she’s now an author they have to include 🙄

      I’m not so bothered about the prizes but, reflecting on this, what I really liked about the WP was the community with other book bloggers, how it brought people together. I can’t think of another prize that does that in the same way.

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