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Debut Irish novelist wins Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

Eimear McBride celebrates winning the 2014 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, June 4 in London (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for Baileys/Diageo) Eimear McBride celebrates winning the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, June 4 in London (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images for Baileys/Diageo)

Debut Irish novelist Eimear McBride has won the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, beating out some of the most famous writers in the world.

“A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing,” McBride’s first novel, triumphed over celebrated novels on the shortlist by Donna Tartt, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Ironically, McBride’s novel was rejected for 10 years by many publishers before it was finally published in the United Kingdom last June by a small independent press. Americans won’t have a chance to read “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” until it is released in the United States in September by Coffee House Press.

The $50,000 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction — formerly the Orange Prize — honors the best work of fiction by a woman written in English. The award ceremony Wednesday evening in London was hosted by novelist Kate Mosse,  chair of the Women’s Prize for Fiction board.

Helen Fraser, chair of the jury, called McBride’s book “an amazing and ambitious first novel that impressed the judges with its inventiveness and energy.”

(Courtesy of Coffee House Press) (Courtesy of Coffee House Press)

Widely praised by English reviewers, “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” is the traumatic story of a young woman whose brother had a brain tumor as a child.

Caroline Casey, the marketing and sales director at Coffee House Press, said McBride’s novel “hit me in the head and then hit me in the gut. It’s vicious and intimate, and the miracle of the book is that it feels inevitable and completely engrossing. Eimear has written a novel of extraordinary brilliance, raw emotion, and possibly the most visceral prose you’ve ever experienced. We couldn’t be prouder to publish her.”

A prize reserved only for women raises complicated issues about the status of their novels.

Joyce Carol Oates, who has been a finalist for the Orange Prize, said: “Since so many prestigious literary awards have gone to women in recent years — Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantel, Lydia Davis — it does seem odd that there is another, quite separate and sex-determined prize exclusively for women. Imagine the rancor if there were a matching Bailey’s Men’s Prize.”

She concedes, though, that “all prizes that highlight literature — whether for women or any other ‘category’ — are probably good. It may be that, as widespread interest in literature wanes, only showily-publicized prizes like the Bailey’s Women’s Prize will draw the attention of an easily distracted public.”

Jennifer Weiner, who has been a leading voice on the critical treatment of novels by women, looks forward to a day when books are judged without regard to the sex of their authors. “But,” she said, “we all know the realities of the current publishing landscape, and how far from level the playing field remains. Women still struggle to get published, reviewed, profiled, noticed, with the same frequency as men. Awards like the Bailey Prize are a necessary corrective, a way of calling attention to worthwhile books that might not have been greeted with the attention their excellence merits.”

One of the leading feminist scholars in America, Elaine Showalter, sees no danger of the Bailey Prize stigmatizing female writers.  “I think male writers may be envious of the Bailey and its showmanship,” she said.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.

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