Why we still need women-only book prizes

Ali Smith’s How to be both, the winner of the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, is a particularly apt riposte to the literary class divide that says men are serious and women are silly.

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Here are some things that wouldn’t exist in a just world: restrictions on the amount of lead a children’s toy can contain, rules against billboards openly lying, women-only book prizes. But because we live in the kind of world where manufacturers will risk poisoning infants with heavy metals to use a cheaper paint, where advertisers will tell honeyed fibs to coax your money out of you, and where men hoard the literary power to themselves, we need all those corrective things. It’s good that they exist, even if their existence is a mark of the fundamental shitness of the world we’ve made so far. They are the promises we make to ourselves that we will be a bit less shit in future.

The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction is my favourite literary prize because it’s the only one that recognises stories I can recognise myself in. It shouldn’t be this way, of course: other prizes are supposed to reward literary excellence in a pure, ungendered way. Except of course, they do not. Excellence is a quality that is for some reason so much easier to recognise in men. Not only are books by women much less likely to win prizes than books by men, but books about women are even more unlucky.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Mantel’s two Bookers are for her eerily firm-fleshed evocations of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies rather than, say, the imperious but female-focused Beyond Black: it is poor form I suppose to be a woman and insist on writing, but at least Mantel eventually had the good grace to write about a properly important (ie male) subject.

And this class divide, where men are serious and women are silly, applies at every level of fiction, from the most solemnly literary to the most warmly commercial. As Marian Keyes told the Hay Festival last week, female authors who write about and for women are likely to be pegged with the dismissive “chick lit” tag: “This is very much a patriarchal society,” she said. “And I think one way of keeping women less well paid and having to do more work is to mock them and anything they love.”

Prizes designed specifically to reward women are a riposte to that attitude, and this year’s Baileys winner is a spectacularly apt one. How to be both by Ali Smith is not only a very fine novel: it is a very fine novel about the ways in which women are bundled out of the culture we supposedly have half shares in, and the ways we find to speak anyway. Of course, it is about lots of other things besides – about love and loss and art and craft and the tender lines that let us find each other. Its double narrative makes a strange mirror between teenage George in contemporary Cambridge and fifteenth century Italian artist Francesco del Cossa, imagined by Smith as a woman cross-dressing to pass as someone whose talents can be recognised. (The novel is published in two versions: “Italy first” and “England first”, so neither of the two self-contained stories can take precedence.)

“We need both luck and justice to get to live the life we’re meant for,” Francesco’s wise and ambitious mother tells her daughter. “Lots of seeds don’t get to. Think. They fall on stone, they get crushed to pieces, rot in the rubbish at the roadside, put down roots that don’t take, die of thirst, die of heat, die of cold before they’ve even broken open underground, never mind grown a leaf.” Determined that her girl will avoid all these wasteful fates, Francesco’s mother sets her on the path to become an artist – which means setting her on on the path to become Francesco too, because of course a girl born in the 1440s could not become an artist.

And by becoming an artist, Francesco is able to produce the pictures that connect her to George, that create the inexplicable but insistent tie holding the two halves of the book together. Smith maintains a craftswoman’s respectful insistence throughout the Italy half of the book on the materials that Francesco needs: “plants and stones, stonedust and water, fish bones, sheep and goat bones…” But most important of all are the eggs for the tempura: “above all we need eggs, the fresher the better, and from the country not the town mean better colours when dry.”

It’s hard not to feel Francesco taking pleasure in this as a secret assertion of femaleness in the production of her work (“blips of life”, George thinks of these eggs more than half a millennium later), but eggs are also the binding agent that will fix her colours to the poplar boards and so fix George to Francesco in a strange and subtle sort of summoning that takes place in room 55 of the National Gallery.

Women taking pride in our own work and paying attention to each others’ is the foundation of a kind of community in How to be both, one that can stretch across centuries and allow one person to find a home within another when they are invited in. It is a terribly simple, terribly important point, but art is how we show ourselves that we exist, and art is how we know each other. As long as women are patronised into obscurity, it is impossible to tell each other that we’re alive, impossible to work together to invent more just worlds for ourselves.

What is justice, Francesco demands of her mother, and her mother answers: “Fairness. Rightness. Getting your due. You getting as much to eat and as much learning and as many chances as your brothers, and them as much and as many as anyone in this city or in this world.” Women need our due as writers and as readers, we need our chances and we need something to eat as well; and the Baileys prize can give us some of that while society at large holds out.



Now listen to the team discussing Ali Smith and “How to be both” on the NS podcast:


Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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