Feminists Drink Cream Liqueur Too

Category: Reading
Tagged: awards, opinion

The news that the Women’s Prize for Fiction has a new sponsor in Baileys is music to my ears – former backer Orange abandoned the prize and it has had to be propped up by private individual sponsors until another backer could be found. This year’s prize shortlist is nothing short of brilliant and the books on it will be hits. The prize will continue and be backed by the might of a leading brand, part of global drinks giant Diageo. Large amounts of sponsorship money will be going towards promoting the best of fiction, written by women. What’s not to like?

In this morning’s Telegraph, Dr. Brooke Magnanti commented derisively about the choice of Baileys as the new sponsor of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her comments have not only a whiff of the elitist about them, but also a bit of a misplaced sense of righteousness about what book prize sponsorship (and arts sponsorship in general) ought to be. Not to mention the drinks that serious women apparently drink.

In a departure that made me wonder if I’d accidentally stumbled into the Telegraph’s food and wine section, Dr. M actually critiqued the actual flavour of Baileys (“over cloying, over sweetened, and far too likely to lead to a pounding hangover.” Enjoy responsibly Dr. M!) and found it hard to imagine Hilary Mantel drinking it (clarification from Mantel on this matter would be most welcome, also on the burning question of whether she drinks it from “dainty glasses”).

Over on The Guardian blog, the prize’s founder, author Kate Mosse, welcomed the new sponsor, saying that they had interviewed 20+ companies in what sounds like a fairly rigorous selection process to find a backer who would "take the prize to another level, so a company that was ambitious and had a global reach," – which sounds like they have their eyes on the prize, so to speak, when it comes to their vision for the Women’s Prize. If they have found that in Baileys, then that is surely something for lovers and champions of women’s writing to celebrate and welcome.

Dr. Magnanti likens Baileys to the beverage equivalent of a hen weekend, and she didn’t mean it in a nice way. Is she trying to say that Baileys and hen weekends are a bit cheap? Beneath the world of literature? Don’t serious women, readers of books, feminists even, attend hen weekends? Magnanti’s problem with Baileys seems to be the fact that it is marketed to women. Does that make it a less worthy sponsor?

But worse than the petty snobbery is the fact that by commenting that Baileys is not the right fit for this prize, Magnanti is really missing the point. Sponsorship for the arts is not easy to obtain, and mass market brands are constantly presented with sponsorship opportunities. The slow-burn publicity of book prizes is not considered the sexiest of propositions by sponsors (when considered alongside music festivals and TV events, for example). As for her insightful point that a leading technology brand might be enlightened enough to sponsor the prize, has she so soon forgotten who had been sponsoring the prize for the preceding sixteen years?

The soon-to-be Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction has gone from strength to strength over the years of Orange sponsorship and losing that sponsorship was a major blow to its progress. Anyone who has worked in fundraising and development in the arts will tell you that attracting new sponsorship is a gruelling prospect. The fact that the Women’s Prize had so many interested parties is something to celebrate, as well as their securing of a major household name brand.

By carping about how ill-fitting she thinks their product is to a literature prize, Dr. Magnanti is doing the artform a disservice. This prize is about celebrating, supporting and highlighting amazing talent. Short-sighted value judgements about who is fit to give money to women’s writing prizes turns a vibrant area of artistic endeavour into ‘a difficult issue’ and other sponsors might then be reluctant to get involved.

Perhaps Baileys are hoping to shift perceptions of their brand in the market, as being a drink that lady-readers like myself might enjoy with a good book? If that is the case, we should be showing them that we appreciate their support of an important part of our culture by doing exactly what they want us to do and raising a wee glass of Baileys to the future of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. Cheers! *clink*

The Women's Prize for Fiction is announced this evening and the ceremony is being broadcast through Google Hangouts, Live from the Southbank Centre in London.

N.B. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and not those of Scottish Book Trust. 

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