Twenty-two years ago, thanks to a group of determined women, led by the bestselling author Kate Mosse, The Women's Prize for Fiction was born. It sprang from a frustration and concern that the voices of women writers weren't being fairly represented or appropriately honoured - not on the books pages of the national press, nor by literary prize panels. Despite the fact that more women than men bought books in the UK, women novelists in particular were not achieving the recognition they deserved. Orange, the mobile phone company came on board as a sponsor for the first 17 years, followed most recently by Bailey's and the prize expanded beyond its simple mission to redress a gender imbalance and has become so much more. Today it can best be described as a year-round celebration of women's voices, a regular media cacophony, setting the tills in the bookstores ringing in delight. Partnerships abound with brands who seek to associate themselves with the dazzling literary talent the prize foregrounds: Waterstones programming events and dedicated space in store, Whistles showcasing the shortlisted books amongst their fashion in store windows, Grazia magazine hosting a bookclub evening, BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour scheduling dedicated broadcasting. The prize has spilled out of the traditional books universe and into bars, festivals - a presence at Latitude in Suffolk last July for example - fashion retail, and theatre and arts venues across London and beyond.
Never saddled with an overtly political agenda, the prize was founded simply to make sure the world paid attention to the exceptional talents of women writing novels in English today. The prize's success and durability is down to many things (the dogged hard work of all those involved, the enduring media appeal of a potential battle of the sexes, a strong social media footprint, the generosity of the sponsors) but above all it is due to the sheer quality and excellence of the books that make the shortlist every year. It is a roll call of the very best writers at work over the last two decades. Some of these may be more well-known than others - several we now know were books that sustained past President Obama during his time in the White House: Marilynne Robinson (Home 2009), Zadie Smith (On Beauty, 2006). Others have since been adapted for both the small and large screens: Emma Donoghue's Room (2011); Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (2010), Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005); and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi's Half of a Yellow Sun (2007) was voted by the public as "Best of the Best" at the twentieth anniversary celebrations. There have been authors from around the English speaking globe: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Trinidad, Turkey as well as Britain and Ireland. The prize has women-only judges; women who are all successful in fields other than books: from actors and musicians (Miranda Richardson, Tracey Thorn), broadcasters and journalists (Razia Iqbal, Caitlin Moran), businesswomen and academics (Margaret Mountford, Mary Beard), public servants and campaigners (Martha Lane Fox, Shami Chakrabarti). A diverse group, they share only their gender and a love of reading. The rich and varied list that emerges from the judging process each spring is a beautifully curated reading list for the curious, the smart and the engaged consumer who looks to fiction to help interpret this confusing and shape-shifting world in which we find ourselves.
As this year's judges, chaired by Tessa Ross CBE, (former Managing Director of Film Four and the producer behind some of the most successful book-to-film adaptations in recent times, Slumdog Millionaire and Twelve Years a Slave) begin their reading marathon to reach their 2017 shortlist, women's voices are making themselves heard louder than ever. No supporter of the Women's Prize for Fiction would have been left unmoved by the women's marches around the world last weekend. Never has it been more important to celebrate the contribution woman make to our rich and diverse culture, and although fiction's primary purpose might be to entertain us, we also know it teaches us empathy and opens up worlds and peoples we might never encounter or understand any other way. And that has never felt more important.
Today we are announcing that Bailey's will be stepping back, after four years of generous sponsorship and so we are looking for a new sponsor to partner with us from 2018 onwards.