From the Women’s Prize Archives.
Literary agent extraordinaire Clare Alexander has been involved in the Women’s Prize for Fiction since it’s founding 24 years ago, and this year three books that she represents have been shortlisted: Ordinary People by Diana Evans, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. We caught up with Clare to ask about the impact the Women’s Prize has had on her life and career.
The Women’s Prize for Fiction holds a special place in my career and in my heart.
It all began in 1991 when I was one in a group of angry women in publishing who met to decide what action we could take when the Booker Prize chose a shortlist of 6 books by men, not only overlooking Wise Children by Angela Carter, but also books like Regeneration by Pat Barker and Possession by A.S. Byatt – novels that are now considered Classics.
We had a bibulous, fun time, much wine was drunk, and by the end of the meeting we had agreed the broad outlines of what was to become the Orange Prize, and then the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Kate Mosse had just stepped down from a job in publishing and had some spare time, so she and agent Jane Gregory agreed to boldly go where no woman had gone before, and to see how we could set about making our prize actually happen. It took 5 years, but they succeeded magnificently.
By 1996 there was a fabulous party for the inaugural prize. I was thrilled when it was given to A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, a novel that I had edited and published. And then in 1997 I became even more enmeshed with the prize when I joined the Board. For many years we did it all by the seat of our pants, making plans over drinks and dinners in each other’s houses. But the prize grew in importance, and we had to learn to be increasingly professional, making it through frequently turbulent waters, including the year when we lost our sponsor, and we all had to raise money by approaching individual private benefactors to keep the prize going.
The Prize is now a fixture in the literary landscape, and its impact on writing and reading continues to grow. It was a wrench when some us stepped aside from actively running the prize to become Founder Patrons a few years back, to make room for different skills and new ideas. So, it is a special joy to me that three of the writers who I represent as an agent are on the shortlist this year. My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is a brilliant, darkly comedic first novel, Ordinary People by Diana Evans is a rare portrait of British black middle class and modern marriage, while Pat Barker’s retelling of The Iliad from the point of view of enslaved queen Briseis in The Silence of the Girls takes me back to where it all started, to when Regeneration was one of the books that was overlooked – but us girls were anything but silent…