Well, as a mere PR exercise, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, awarded last night, has done really well, what with the American woman from Diageo (owner of Baileys) causing Ian Hislop to fall asleep while standing up during her speech. I haven’t a clue whether Ali Smith’s book, How To Be Both, about sexuality-shifting, is any use, though I am still recovering from reading last year’s winner, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which is sort of James Joyce, only with really gross stuff about sexual abuse. It’s nice and short though.
Two questions to ask about the prize. One, why was Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, chair of the judges? She may be the cat’s whiskers when it comes to human rights – though I may say, I part company with her on any number of issues – but I haven’t heard anything from anyone who was present at the event to suggest that she knows anything about literature. Certainly she not too hot on writing, as anyone who has read her campaigning memoirs, On Liberty, can tell you. I gather her speech was saccharine stuff (with a little bit about how her mum used to enjoy her glass of Baileys) when it wasn’t a plug for her new initiative, a protest at a women’s prison. Now, we all know, don’t we, that we mustn’t take literary prizes at their own estimation, but it really doesn’t do much for this one that the judges were chaired by someone whose sole qualification for the role is, it seems, that she is, and always has been, a woman.
The other, more important question is, why does the sponsor of a prize for women’s fiction have to be Baileys? As one friend trenchantly observed to me today, it just says to you that women are rubbish when it comes to choosing their drink. I am perfectly prepared to accept, with shame, that women constitute about 90 per cent of Baileys drinkers and possibly more, but it doesn’t do much for the standing of women to be associated with a cream liqueur that is fit to be poured on ice cream and nothing else.
Why not a nice whiskey, to redeem the thing from outright sexism? Jameson sponsors a short story award; it could easily extend its remit to women’s fiction. Or Bushmills? Or Teeling, which is a new and very nice brand, made in Dublin. Personally, I still think of the thing as the Orange prize for women’s fiction. But maybe another fruit could take it over. A banana, perhaps.