Founded in 1996, the Women’s Prize for Fiction is described as “the UK’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman.” Formerly sponsored by Orange from 1996-2012, the prize has currently taken the sponsor name of Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. The award is open to international female authors of an original full length novel that has been written in English and published in the UK the preceding year. The establishment of the prize came as a reaction to the complete absence of female authors in the 1991 Booker Prize shortlist, an oversight that provoked discussion from diverse figures in the literary world.
Kate Mosse, one of the original co-founders of the Women’s Prize, recounts the attitudes expressed in this group’s first meeting:
“Everyone at that ad-hoc meeting was puzzled that, despite the ratio of books by man published to books by women, by women being 60/40 in women’s favour, the leading literary prizes, the leading literary prizes nonetheless often seemed to overlook accomplished, challenging important fiction by female writers.”
Acknowledging the role that literary awards have in introducing a writer’s work to a larger audience, the Women’s Committee began to draw the guidelines for its award before making a first approach to Orange for sponsorship in 1995. The Prize money itself, a sum of £30,000, was donated by an anonymous donor in whose honour the bronze “Bessie” statuette is given to the winning author each year.
Previous winners of the award include Barbara Kingsolver, Zadie Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lionel Shriver and Eimear McBride. McBride describes the award as having an enormous impact on her work: “Winning the Bailey’s changed my career hugely. If I’m honest, it gave me a career.”
As a literary award that is only open to women, the prize has come under criticism from figures such as Germaine Greer, and A.S. Byatt, a winner of The Booker Prize who refused for her book to be judged on the grounds that the Women’s Prize was a “sexist” award. In response to claims that the Women’s Prize for Fiction plays a negative role in its categorisation of female literature, 2016 judge and Turkish author Elif Shafak disagrees: “The Baileys makes the invisible more visible. It sheds more light on some amazingly talented women.”
Indeed, it can be argued that the visibility brought about through the Women’s Award has begun to emanate further throughout the literary world, with 50% of the 2016 Booker Prize Shortlisted Authors being female.
This year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist has been highlighted as having an immense variety of subject matter and it includes a debut writer, Nigeria’s Ayòbámi Adébáyò, and a former winner from 2000, Linda Grant. The award ceremony will take place at Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank Centre on the 7th June 2017.