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A.M. Homes wins Women’s Prize

UPDATE: Washington-native A.M. Homes won the Women’s Prize tonight in London for “May We Be Forgiven.”

Started in 1996, the $46,000 annual prize is awarded to the best novel written in English by a woman.

This year’s finalists included two previous winners of the Women’s Prize (formerly the Orange Prize):

“Bring Up the Bodies,” by Hilary Mantel, the second volume in her ongoing trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, which has already won the Man Book Prize twice.

“Flight Behavior,” by Barbara Kingsolver, who won the Women’s Prize in 2010 for “The Lacuna.”

“Life After Life,” by Kate Atkinson, the English writer whose first novel, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” won the 1995 Whitbread prize.

“NW,” by Zadie Smith, who won the Women’s Prize in 2006 for “On Beauty.”

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?,” by Maria Semple, an American who has been a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” “Arrested Development” and “Ellen” among other TV shows.

The Women’s Prize has always attracted criticism — not so much for its winners as for its very existence.

Polly Courtney’s recent complaint in the Huffington Post is fairly typical: “I am not denying there’s a problem with sexism in literature,” she writes. “Women writers do need to win prizes in order to expand their global reach. But they need to win prizes that are open to everyone — not just women.”

But Meg Wolitzer, whose new novel, “The Interestings,” was published in April, thinks the prize is valuable and necessary. “This year’s VIDA statistics show once again the degree to which men outnumber women in most of the important literary publications,” she told me. “The Women’s Prize remains a significant way to bring attention and readers to terrific work by women writers. The playing field isn’t level yet, and to pretend it is is a polite evasion that makes the writing and publishing lives of women more difficult.”

Feminist scholar Elaine Showalter agrees. “There is still a need for a literary prize for women — to highlight the diversity and excellence of women’s fiction and to compensate for the media attention disproportionately lavished on male novelists,” she writes to me from London. “It’s also an opportunity for women to claim the literary spotlight as readers, reviewers, and critics as well as writers. The prize generates great enthusiasm and excitement. I think some of the controversy is just jealousy about women writers getting so much publicity!”

She was at Wednesday night’s ceremony, rooting for “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” She called it a “fresh and enthralling novel” and said she “would like to see a new writer recognized, among the giants on this year’s list.”

Earlier this week, the judges announced that for the next three years the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be sponsored by Bailey’s cream liqueur.