When Douglas Stuart, a then relatively unknown debut novelist, beat the likes of Hilary Mantel to the 2020 Booker Prize with Shuggie Bain, becoming only the sixth first-time author to ever take home the award, it stoked a debate over what should receive our limited attention (and prize money). Should the hype, the recognition and the accolades go towards buzzy new voices, or to old hands who have put years, decades and thousands of words into the game?
Now, that conversation is about to be reignited as this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is, quite literally, dominated by debuts. While a surprising number of literary heavyweights have been omitted, over half of the list – nine out of the 16, to be exact – are first time authors. Last year, five debuts were longlisted and six in 2021 – and there have been years where as few as three have made the cut. So, although the judges always insist it is about nothing other than the quality of the books, it feels as though this year’s panel, chaired by Louise Minchin, have made a point of celebrating those new voices. And you know what? Quite rightly so.
For starters, each of those debut books are more than worthy of their places. Louise Kennedy’s Tresspasses is a blisteringly good story of love amid the Troubles while Jaqueline Crooks’ rich and rhythmic Fire Rush has been raved about by former Booker winner Bernardine Evaristo. Cecile Pin’s Wandering Souls, a lyrical tale about the splintered lives of three orphans following the Vietnam War, is tender and devastating; Homesick, Jennifer Croft’s fiction debut is a coming-of-age masterpiece about two sisters and the healing power of words.
This is not to say established authors have been overlooked entirely. Maggie O’Farrell and Barbara Kingsolver, both previous winners of the prize, are longlisted once more for their (brilliant) novels The Marriage Portrait and Demon Copperhead respectively. Welsh author Sophie Mackintosh may be only on her third book but in that time she has quickly become one of our most respected literary writers – as her nomination for her feminist fable Cursed Bread shows.
But there are some glaring omissions. Kamila Shamsie, another previous winner, could easily have been longlisted for her deft study of friendship and power, Best of Friends. Elizabeth Strout for the latest in her Lucy Barton series, Lucy by the Sea. There’s no recognition for Kate Atkinson’s terrific Shrines of Gaiety, nor for Nina Stibbe, whose funny and wise One Day I Will Astonish the World seemed like a Women’s Prize certainty. And where is Celeste Ng – friend of Reese Witherspoon since the star adapted her second novel Little Fires Everywhere for TV – and her dystopian family story Our Missing Hearts?
The thing is, every year we could easily fill the entire list with these kind of well-known novelists. But, as terrific as they all are, their omission is necessary. It has to be. The more they continue to be revered and rewarded, the less room there is for the little-known to ever get a look in.
And it’s important. Prestigious literary awards like these have a huge amount of influence both when it comes to shaping what we read and in launching the careers of exceptional talent. Just ask Douglas Stuart: Shuggie Bain is now being adapted for the BBC and his follow up novel Young Mungo became a number one Sunday Times bestseller. This is exactly what these awards should be for – recognising talent, yes, but also helping readers discover new writers; reminding us to expand our reading horizons beyond those we already know and love.
The Women’s Prize helps us do this each year, though since its foundation in 1996, only a handful of debut novelists have actually won. Let’s hope 2023 is another of those years – my money’s on Louise Kennedy.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist in full
Glory by NoViolet Bulawayo
Homesick by Jennifer Croft
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova
Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Cursed Bread by Sophie Mackintosh
The Dog of the North by Elizabeth McKenzie
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel
Pod by Laline Paull
Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin
The Bandit Queens by Parini Shroff
Memphis by Tara M Stringfellow