I sip coffee and look askance at the two most famous books shortlisted for the 2023 Women’s Prize, Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead and Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, which my friend has brought to the coffeehouse for a book swap. Having skimmed the first 50 pages of Kingsolver’s and O’Farrell’s best-selling novels, I honestly believe that Kingsolver’s Appalachian retelling of David Copperfield is an incipient American classic, while O’Farrell’s interpretation of Lucrezia de Medici’s life is sly and seductive.
“No, I can’t possibly read these.” I shove them across the table.
My friend wailed mockingly, “But you predicted they would make the shortlist!”
“And didn’t I also say I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore?”
“No, you did not. Honey, are you quoting Network? The context?”
“None. Only, you know, Kingsolver and O’Farrell have already won the Women’s Prize.”
Is there too much star power on the literary prize lists? No, really, you can’t have too much. But I am ambivalent. On the one hand, I love a chance to discover new writers every year – which is the greatest gift of literary awards – and on the other, I appreciate the recognition of well-known writers. I loved it when Susanna Clarke won the Women’s Prize for the genuinely bizarre, fantastic, allegorical novel, Piranesi, which no one believed would win a “mainstream” literature prize. And I am just as pleased when my favorite writers make the longlist, as Charlotte Mendelson did last year for her brilliant novel, The Exhibitionist.
The Women’s Prize always seems a bit offbeat. For one thing it keeps losing its funding: the female literati aren’t favored by big sponsors. The prize began as The Orange Prize, then segued into the Baileys Women’s Prize, and now has the generic name, The Women’s Prize. Sad, isn’t it, that it’s such a struggle to find funding? Of course even the Booker Prize was the Man Booker for a few years.
Here are the four other books on the 2023 Women’s Prize shortlist. I shall try to find at least one of them.
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
Pod by Laline Paull
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy