The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Readings

Last night, I went to the Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Readings event at the Southbank Centre in London and it was every bit as awesome as I hoped it would be.

Over the last couple of months, I have read five out of the six books on this year’s shortlist.  In summary, ‘May We Be Forgiven’ by A.M. Homes was the most dysfunctional (i.e. my least favourite), ‘Flight Behaviour’ by Barbara Kingsolver was beautifully written, ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson had an intriguing concept which was handled very well, ‘NW’ by Zadie Smith had excellent dialogue and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel was an impressive interpretation of historical events.  Sadly, I haven’t had a chance to read ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ by Maria Semple yet but I will try and seek out a copy in the future.

Anyway, this is my ticket for which I paid the princely sum of £6 (gotta love student discounts).  I also took my copies of ‘NW’ and ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ with me.

Before attending the event, I spent some time wandering around the Southbank Centre taking advantage of an uncharacteristically warm and sunny June day in London.

This is the Southbank Book Market under Waterloo Bridge.

*Homer Simpson drooling noise*

There is also a Foyles bookshop very nearby.

I didn’t buy anything but I did pick up a free bookmark which informed me that 29th June – 6th July is Independent Booksellers Week…. make sure you put it in your diary.

And now to the event itself… This is the main stage in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  I was lucky enough to get a seat on the second row from the front.  Photography during the readings, however, was strictly forbidden.  Given that I was sitting directly behind the official photographer, I didn’t want to push my luck.

I remember that there were very few seats left when I bought my ticket and sure enough, the hall really was packed.  Also, I know that this sounds quite odd given the nature of the award, but I was actually quite surprised that about 95% of the audience at the event was female.  Yes, this is the Women’s Prize for Fiction but it is hardly a chick lit prize. I certainly think these books would all be enjoyed by men too.  Given the reason why the Women’s Prize was launched in the first place, I found it strangely ironic that the audience was very unbalanced.

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In alphabetical order, the authors gave a short reading from their nominated books and answered a few questions from Kate Mosse (one of the original founders of the prize) and the audience.  Kate Atkinson read a passage describing Ursula’s affair with Crighton.  A. M. Homes read from the opening Thanksgiving scene in her book.  Barbara Kingsolver also read from the opening scene of ‘Flight Behaviour’ when Dellarobia discovers the butterflies.  Mantel read from a passage in which the court receives the news of Katherine’s death.  Semple read an extract from one of Bernadette’s letters in which she rants about how awful Seattle is.  Smith chose a scene from ‘NW’ in which several people ask a young man to stop smoking in the playground.   All of them were highly engaging to listen to.

It was also really great to get some insight into what inspired these books.  Smith once fell victim to the exact same scam outlined in the introduction of ‘NW’.  For Atkinson, ‘Life After Life’ was a “break” from the serious plotting required for her crime novels which I thought was interesting as that novel also seems very intricately woven in terms of plot.  Homes’s work was originally meant to be a short story for a volume of work edited by Zadie Smith but eventually became a novel (personally, I wish that ‘May We Be Forgiven’ had been a short story…).  

And then there was a book signing afterwards…

IMG_1759Hilary Mantel signing my book.

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Blurry…

IMG_1754My signed copies.  

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I really enjoyed the readings and would definitely go to similar events in the future.   Overall, I wouldn’t say that the event has changed my views on either the books themselves or my predictions for who will actually win the Prize later tonight.  I still think that Mantel is a strong contender and the fact that she has won other major awards for ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ shouldn’t hold her back.  ‘Life After Life’ and ‘Flight Behaviour’ are also very strong novels.  In my view, I am not sure ‘NW’ and ‘May We Be Forgiven’ are really consistent enough overall to win the Prize.  Having not yet read ‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’, I can’t really pass judgement on that one.  It’s a very strong shortlist and the judges have an unenviable task ahead of them…

Who do you think will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction?  Who do you want to win?

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19 Comments

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19 responses to “The Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist Readings

  1. genproofreads

    Wish I was there. Whether there or at BEA, I would probably spend far too much money and get far too drunk and end up with a reading list far too long. But the positives would by far outweigh the negatives.

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  2. I don’t know about prize winners, I am not really into book prizes (except for Booker, because I have a running reading challenge), but I love Hilary Mantel’s signature. So unique

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  4. Dave Quayle

    But how do you feel about it being sponsored by Baileys this year? At least it’s not Babycham I suppose.

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  5. I love the Women’s Prize and what it stands for but there is one thing that I would change and that is to have men on the judging panel. The prize needs to send out the message that books written by women are for all readers and that men can enjoy them too. In its current format the prize seems to exclude men completely which defeats what the prize was set up to achieve. I gather the casual reader demographic is 60% female, 40% male and therefore there should be 2 men on the judging panel to represent those readers.

    P.S. Isn’t Hilary Mantel’s signature beautiful? You are very lucky.

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    • Totally agree with this. Almudena Grandes, one of my favourite Spanish authors, wrote a very powerful essay about women’s position in the book market and she staunchly believes that unless more steps are taken to ensure that fewer and fewer people think of female writers as writing only for women, then there will be two types of literature: ‘literature written by women’ and ‘literature’. Of the six short-listed novels I’ve only read Bring up the Bodies and NW, but both are not at all targeted just towards women. Mantel’s piece has a distinctly male voice and NW is equally weighted between male and female perspectives.

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  6. Helga Bolleter

    I would have loved to be there. Thanks for taking us along on this event. So much talent in one place.

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  7. OMG you’r so lucky getting Hilary Mantel and Zadie Smith’s autographs. Talk about fan girling. I can’t say I’m surprised about the audience being primarily women. There is still a stigma on me reading books that deal with female problems. In my opinion an interesting book isn’t chosen on gender issues. I suggest you pick up Where’d You Go, Bernadette because it was comical, emotional, and full of priceless one liners and situations,you’re going to love it, for that alone I want it to win but I’m sure it’s going to Hilary Mantel. Thanks for sharing! Sometimes I wish I lived in London. Maybe next year I’ll try to go.

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  8. naomifrisby

    Ooof! You’ll be disappointed tonight then!

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  9. I had no idea students could go to the ceremony so cheaply – did you have to book it very far in advance? It definitely looks worthwhile, so I hope I can go next year (…especially if there may be some Baileys samples around!) My favourite book was Flight Behaviour, but I thought May We Be Forgiven was deserving too. I found Where’d You Go, Bernadette was in a similarly dysfunctional vein to the Homes, so you may not be a fan, but it is a much lighter read.

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    • I booked my ticket for the readings event in April about a week before the shortlist was announced and I think it sold out pretty quickly. Even full price it was only £12 so still very good value. The actual ceremony is a more exclusive event – I think you need good contacts in the publishing industry to go to that one!

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  10. I’m wide-eyed zooming at the picture when you can almost see Kate Atkinson!!!!! Thank you so, so, so much!

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  11. Jealous jealous jealous!!! Of everything… being in London, hearing the readings, getting the autographs. I get so starstruck whenever I meet famous writers. I’m impressed you didn’t babble incoherently at them and then walk away red-faced, as I would have done.

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