The ‘Should have been a contender for the Man Booker’ Prize 2014

Since the 2014 long list was announced on Wednesday, much has been said about its lack of diversity. Three women (Ali Smith, Siri Hustvedt, Karen Joy Fowler). One non-white writer (Neel Mukherjee). Nine white men. Sarah Churchwell, one of the judges, made the point that the judges are constrained by what publishers choose to submit. But that’s hardly a defence – whether the issue lies with the books that publishers choose to submit, or with the decisions made at judging level, there is an issue. Are these thirteen books really the cream of novels published in English within the twelve months of the eligibility period? I had reservations about last year’s shortlist, but the longlist itself was diverse and interesting. Perhaps I’ll feel the same way about this list when I’ve actually read the novels. But nine white men?

I have nothing against white men. I’m married to one and am raising two. But this list feels like a throwback to an age when women had to write under male pseudonyms. Big publishers dominate, too, although it is good to see the crowd-funded Wake making an appearance.

I’m not as distressed as many seem to have been by the absence of The Goldfinch. It won the Pulitzer, it was shortlisted for the Baileys, it’s selling well, and Tartt is so celebrated that she dominates headlines announcing a prize she hasn’t been shortlisted for. But The Goldfinch is not a flawless novel, and if the Folio, Baileys and Man Booker regularly long list the same novels, the world of literary prizes will become very dull. I’m similarly unperturbed by the absence of Ian McEwan and Martin Amis.

An extremely unscientific survey identified the following titles as ones readers were secretly hoping would make the Man Booker list. Eleven women, four men, some that lean to the commercial, some that are more overtly literary, a wide range of publishers and subject matter. But every one of these novels was nominated by at least two separate readers in response to a Twitter appeal. I’m not claiming it’s been through as thorough a process as the Man Booker long list. Of course it reflects assumptions and experiences of the company I keep. But with nine white men on the long list, can the Man Booker claim to be any different?

Thirst, Kerry Hudson

A God in Every Stone, Kamila Shamsie

After Me Comes the Flood, Sarah Perry

Lost for Words, Edward St Aubyn

The Dead Wife’s Handbook, Hannah Beckerman

Linda Grant, Upstairs at the Party

Jill Dawson, The Tell Tale Heart

Maggie Gee, Virginia Woolf in Manhattan

Jason Hewitt, The Dynamite Room

Jonathan Gibbs, Randall

In the Light of What We Know, Zia Hander Rahman

Her, Harriet Lane

A Song for Issy Bradley, Carys Bray

Elizabeth is Missing, Emma Healey

The Shock of the Fall, Nathan Filer

 

Thirst and WoMentoring – Welcome Kerry Hudson!

A huge welcome, please, for Kerry Hudson, whose second novel, Thirst, is published on Thursday. Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma was a great debut – funny, foul-mouthed and emotional – and I’m honoured to be the starting point for Thirst’s blog tour. Kerry’s vibrancy, generosity and energy is evident not only in her writing, but in the WoMentoring Project. As a very proud WoMentoring mentor, I asked Kerry to write about the project – what inspired it, what it took to get it together and what her hopes are for it moving forwards.Thirst pack shot (1)

Kerry writes: The WoMentoring Project came out of a conversation on Twitter where I asked people what peer support opportunities were available to female writers. I knew some writers who I felt sure would be happy to offer a few hours of their time to chat with, support, guide and, well, mentor female writers and I thought if I did probably others did too. So I went on Twitter and I simply asked, ‘would you help too’?

I always say that the response was overwhelming and that is precisely what it was. Over sixty amazing women, some I knew personally, but many more people I’d only ever chatted to online, responded within the hour to say they would help. What they all had in common was that they were successful in their fields – largely writers, editors or agents – and they were prepared offer their time for free.

Women wanted to help other women. Perhaps because we’d all read the articles about women being paid and reviewing less than male writers and felt frustrated. And this was a way to address, even in a small way, the gender bias which still exists in publishing as well as levelling the playing field for those who didn’t have deep pockets but had lots of talent. As a working-class female writer trying to build a career I knew I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I didn’t act on the enormous promise generosity from these women.

I moved to Budapest a few days after that first Twitter conversation and so for the next three months I sat in my little studio in a beautiful ruin of building in the 8th district and began gathering all the information I’d need from the mentors. I started building the website and put in place procedures and guidelines, mindful of the fact they needed to be simple for both mentors and mentees. I wrote copy for the website and a mentor (the lovely Shelley Harris) found us free PR support in the shape of the power-house Lisa Devany. Sally-Jane Thompson, an incredibly talented illustrator, offered to make some bespoke artwork for the project. One of the most remarkable things about the WoMentoring Project – and I say this as someone who worked as project manager for charities for years – is that the whole thing was achieved on zero budget. It was literally through goodwill, offers of assistance, through the power of a collective of women that it ever happened and during those three months, slowly, slowly, momentum started to build.

The WoMentoring Project launched on the 16th of April and the website, that I’d built in my pajamas drinking gallons diet coke to keep me going into the wee hours, had almost 30,000 page views on that single day. We now have over one-hundred mentors. They span the broadest range of genre, some are debuts, some bestsellers, while some edit Booker longlisted books and other represent bright young things. Our mentees are just as diverse. The project has somehow spanned the usual lines drawn, the usual barriers put up to keep us corralled into specific boxes.

It’s called the WoMentoring Project because at the moment it’s set to run for a twelve month pilot period. And what then? Well, it’s early days but if it continues to be as effective and beneficial as it’s been so far, it’s likely we’ll start seeking funding. That funding would go to improving the website making it more accessible and easier to find mentors, it would pay for group mentor training and for a ‘time to write’ bursary for our most promising mentees.

In the meantime I’m planning the WoMentoring summer party which will be the first time all mentors and mentees will have come together as group. It will be an opportunity to build connections but mostly it will be a celebration. A cenelration of what is possible through kindness and collaboration. A true celebration of exceptional women helping exceptional women. Here’s to that!

Six months till publication – July

So first, a reality check. I am writing this in the café of a huge skating/climbing wall/caving/high ropes complex on an out-of-town industrial estate. Thirty four overexcited Cub Scouts are running around – one of them is mine, overtired at the end of term, running on fumes. The music is loud and piped; in a former life, it was by Oasis, before Oasis met Tony Blair. How things change.
But this is the time I have. It’s the only time I have. The evening I’d dedicated to writing this post was swallowed in preparations for a first ballet exam (not my own), a bumper spelling test (not my own), and two unsettled bedtimes (again, and sadly, not my own). James is already on our family holiday with his parents and our two youngest; the rest of us will join in as soon as the older two break up, which seemed like a good idea at the time. But we’re all missing each other. Plans have changed and shifted as plans involving children do, so the writing time, which was to be my compensation for the separation, has evaporated, leaving no trace.
This was my life before I got the book deal. It’s how The Ship was written in the first place. And as I snatched a few minutes here, a few minutes there, chipping away at the marble cliff of my idea, I consoled myself with visions of what my writing life would look like if I ever succeeded in getting published. Mummy’s writing would stop being code for Mummy’s doing her own thing and there would be no guilt surrounding writing time, because a deal would make my writing, my work.
Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell the rest of the world to change its behaviour accordingly. I was writing isn’t accepted by a ballet examiner as a reason for presenting a candidate in leather ballet shoes instead of satin ones. A Cub Scout without a signed permission form isn’t allowed to go on the High Ropes, no matter how essential his mother’s storytelling might be to the smooth running of the universe. And a bumper spelling test is a bumper spelling test, and although I don’t give a stuff whether a seven year old can spell every word that’s been on the list this term, the seven year old does.
Meanwhile, my copy edits have landed, and my holiday task will be unravelling the residual snarls in the text. It turns out that my life before the deal was the blueprint for my life after the deal.
Except for one thing. I went to Orion’s offices yesterday to drop something off, and I had to take my eldest with me. He’s nine. We got to the lovely shiny offices, and went in the lovely shiny lift, and opposite the lovely shiny reception desk was a display of books. One of them was a Deadly 60 title. Eldest picked it up. ‘Are you being published by the same people as Steve Backshall?’ he said. And when I nodded, the most important part of my universe shifted its opinion just a little. Mummy’s pursuing her dreams has never meant much. But Mummy’s hanging out with Steve Backshall – now that’s cool.