Four years ago, technical writer Becky Chambers had run out of paying work, and turned to crowdfunding to raise the $2,500 (£1,750) she needed to finish writing her debut novel. Now her space opera has been longlisted for the Baileys women’s prize for fiction, alongside works by some of the most garlanded names writing today, from Anne Enright to Kate Atkinson.
In 2012, the American writer had asked Kickstarter for the money she needed, to give her “two months of mornings dedicated to finishing” The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. “I found myself in a jam. I was out of paying work until June, and I didn’t know how I was going to make a book happen without losing sanity and shelter in the process,” she wrote at the time. She secured the funds and initially self-published the novel, in which a ship of wormhole builders travels the galaxy, making holes in space. She went on to land a deal with Hodder & Stoughton.
On Tuesday, her novel was one of 20 books longlisted for the £30,000 Baileys prize, which celebrates fiction by women writing in English, and which has been won in the past by Zadie Smith, Lionel Shriver and Eimear McBride. Eleven debut novels were chosen for the longlist, from Chambers’ space opera to film director Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love, about a woman who discovers a lost masterpiece in a secondhand shop, and psychotherapist Rachel Elliott’sWhispers Through a Megaphone, about an unlikely friendship between timid Ralph and Miriam, who has not left her house in three years. The number of debut novels selected is the highest since 2000, when the longlist also ran to 11.
A host of major names also made the cut in a field of condenders praised for their imaginative scope and ambition by chair of judges Margaret Mountford, the former lawyer who gained a cult following on The Apprentice. Booker winner Enright was picked for The Green Road, about the return home for Christmas of the adult children of Rosaleen Madigan; Costa winner Atkinson for A God in Ruins, the follow-up to her award-winning Life After Life, and Hanya Yanagihara for A Little Life, in which the unspeakable childhood of a graduate is slowly revealed.
Pulitzer winner Geraldine Brooks was longlisted for The Secret Chord, and Petina Gappah, winner of the Guardian first book award, for The Book of Memory, narrated by an albino woman convicted of murder and held in a maximum security prison in Harare. Gappah is the first Zimbabwean author to be longlisted for the prize.
“Over half of our longlist is debut writers, but at the same time we have well-established names,” said judge and novelist Elif Shafak, who together with Mountford is on the judging panel for the prize, alongside singer and writer Tracey Thorn and journalists Naga Munchetty and Laurie Penny. “The longlist shows that you don’t have to start out with a big publishing house.”
With over 170 novels read by judges, Shafak said that many dealt with the past, “and how the past continues to live in the present”, with family also “a very important theme … Many of the books we read were taking a very complex look at family relationships, how complicated it all is, how children and the younger generations take on the burden of the past.”
The Baileys is in its 21st year, but Shafak insists that there is still a need for the award set up by novelist Kate Mosse after the 1991 Booker prize shortlist failed to feature a single female author. “I very wholeheartedly believe we need the Baileys until complete equality is achieved,” said Shafak. “At first glance the books world is very open-minded and egalitarian, but when you see the number of reviews of books by women in mainstream publications” – analysis of literary coverage has found reviews are skewed heavily towards books by men, reviewed by men – “you realise there is still an inequality.”
The shortlist for the Baileys, which was formerly known as the Orange prize, will be revealed on 11 April, with the winner announced on 8 June.
The 2016 Baileys prize longlist
Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett (Australia)
Ruby by Cynthia Bond (US)
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks(Australia/US)
A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton (UK)
Whispering Through a Megaphone by Rachel Elliot (UK)
The Green Road by Anne Enright (Ireland)
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe)
Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy (UK/Serbia)
The Anatomist’s Dream by Clio Gray (UK)
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney (Ireland)
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild (UK)