Literary heavyweights including Margaret Atwood and Annie Proulx have been pitted against debut novelists in the longlist for the 2017 Bailey’s women’s prize for fiction, after a record-breaking year for submissions. In one of the most diverse lists of recent years, titles under consideration for the £30,000 award range from speculative fiction and contemporary noir to historical drama.
The 16-strong longlist was chosen from 189 submissions – a substantial increase on previous years, which averaged 150 titles. Though organisers had wanted to reduce the longlist to fewer than the usual 20 books in order to give more focus to each title, the judges pushed for 16 novels to reflect the strength of entries.
Chair of judges Tessa Ross said there were “a large number of books of extraordinary quality to choose from this year, and so I can’t say that it was an easy process to come up with a list as short as 16”.
The Baileys prize celebrates fiction by women writing in English and has been won in the past by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy. This year, big names dominate the list of nominees, including three previous winners, four second novels and only three debuts, compared with 11 last year.
Atwood’s Hag-Seed is a contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which a theatre director seeks revenge against his enemies through a prison production of the play. It is the latest addition to Vintage’s Hogarth Shakespeare project, in which leading authors reinvent the classic plays for modern readers. In her Guardian review, Viv Groskop called Hag-Seed “riotous, insanely readable and just the best fun”.
The former Man Booker prize winner is up against Proulx’s Barkskins, an ambitious tale of diaspora and deforestation, which the 80-year-old author said on publication was “not a navel-staring, dysfunctional-family thing that’s so beloved of most American writers”.
The three past winners in contention are Rose Tremain, Linda Grant and Eimear McBride. The novels by Grant and Tremain are both set in the aftermath of the second world war, although in very different contexts. Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata is told in Switzerland during and after the war, while Grant’s The Dark Circle unfolds in a Kent sanatorium in the 50s. McBride’s second novel The Lesser Bohemians is set in 90s London and intimately chronicles a relationship between an 18-year-old woman and a man 20 years her senior.
Naomi Alderman, who won the Orange award for new writers in 2006, provides the only speculative fiction on the list. The Power reverses the status quo between genders, with women around the world developing a supernatural electrical power that sparks a new era of female dominance over men.
Ross, a film producer whose credits include Billy Elliot and Room, praised the quality and breadth of submissions. “There was a massive range of work and we should be excited by the confidence and breadth of books and voices being produced by women writers,” she said.
Only three debuts are listed this year: Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me, Emma Flint’s Little Deaths and Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter. On a list with writers from Britain, Canada, the US, Ireland and South Africa, Adébáyò is the only west African nominated, for her devastating story of love and motherhood set in Nigeria. Flint’s Little Deaths is about a suspected infanticide in 60s Queens, New York, while Melrose’s Midwinter is set in contemporary Suffolk.
Ross said that the dearth of new writers did not reflect the quality of submissions, but that more work by established writers, past winners and previously nominated authors had been submitted. “It was an extraordinary year for the number of previous winners among the submissions,” she said.
This will be the last year that the 22-year-old prize is sponsored by the Diagio-owned drinks brand. Earlier this year Kate Mosse, founder of the prize, which was sponsored by Orange until 2013, said that she hoped to be able to announce a new sponsor when the 2017 winner is announced in June.
The 2017 Baileys prize for women’s fiction longlist
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus)
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill (riverrun)