Fiction Uncovered: The writers prized after all others
The IoS literary editor and judge Katy Guest reveals the winners of a new award for overlooked British novels
To the great happiness of most British book lovers, the literary calendar seems full of prizes for almost every genre of book and writer.
There are book prizes for women authors (drawing predictable annual complaints from men too lazy to organise prizes of their own). There are prizes for funny books for adults and children (from the Saga Award for Wit to the Roald Dahl Funny Prize). There are prizes for fiction in translation, such as The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize which was won by Aharon Appelfeld, earlier this month, for Blooms of Darkness. There are prizes for first novels, and for books by young writers, old writers, Welsh, Scottish and Irish writers. Romantic novels can win prizes in five different categories in the Romantic Novelists Association awards alone. And these are just the prizes for fiction. But until recently, there was no award for good writing that had just somehow slipped under the radar. And then, last year, Fiction Uncovered came along.
The prize is an unusual one, in that it selects eight titles instead of one winner each year. Its remit is quite simple: to "uncover and celebrate our best British writers". Fiction Uncovered somewhat boldly thinks of itself as the Mercury Prize for books, because it celebrates writers whom keen readers (and literary editors) might know about, and introduces some whom we probably don't. First-time novelists with huge publicity budgets need not apply, nor should world famous big prize-winners whose latest novels come with serialisation deals and press interviews. This is a prize for consistently impressive writers, many of whom have been quietly producing great fiction for so many years that the sleepy book world has all but forgotten them. It's about the unsqueaky wheel finally getting the grease, and it unveiled its eight titles for 2012 on Wednesday.
Traditionally, in publishing, "midlist" is a bit of a dirty word. "I hate it – it's an ugly term!" says Alexandra Pringle, an editor at Bloomsbury, whose author David Park is one of Fiction Uncovered's eight winners for The Light of Amsterdam – a gorgeously unexpected novel about three sets of people who set out from Dublin on the same flight. "But it's the centre of what we do, where we grow our writers. It's from the midlist that Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker Prize and Kamila Shamsie was shortlisted for the Orange. That's what we're hoping for David Park. He's a writer of great subtlety and deep humanity who is one of the most underrated writers today. When I was asked to submit an author to be considered by Fiction Uncovered, it was David, no question."
Equally hardworking is Doug Johnstone, another author to make the final Fiction Uncovered eight. Readers of The Independent on Sunday will know him as a frequent reviewer in these pages. You perhaps don't know that he is also a member of the band Northern Alliance, has a PhD in nuclear physics, and worked for four years designing airborne radars and missile guidance systems. You're more likely to have heard about his fourth novel, Hit & Run, which was published by Faber and Faber in March.
"It's a real honour to have your work chosen by any panel of judges," he says, "but Fiction Uncovered seems to me to serve a specific, very useful purpose in getting the word out about writers and books that otherwise might struggle to get attention. More and more these days, I see fantastic novels slipping through the cracks, so anything that helps writers to grab a tiny sliver of the limelight can only be a good thing." He adds that he's also not a huge fan of the term "midlist", but "it's better than 'shitlist' or 'unpublished' or 'homeless junkie scum'."
Having been a judge on this year's Fiction Uncovered, I can of course declare that the eight novels chosen are all deserving winners. Between my fellow judges (John Sutherland, the professor of modern English literature at University College London, the Foyles' Group head of buying Jasper Sutcliffe, and the novelist Matt Thorne, head of creative writing at Brunel University) and myself, there were prior fans of several of the submitted novelists. I have twice interviewed Dan Rhodes and have long wondered why the whole world does not love his books as much as I do. His latest, This Is Life, a weird story of what happens when an art student in Paris accidentally throws a stone at a baby, deserves a huge audience – and the audience deserves to read it. I'm also a big fan of Tibor Fischer, whose two stories in Crushed Mexican Spiders contain such beautiful writing that the book was included despite being by far the shortest submitted. Other writers, such as Cressida Connolly and Susannah Jones, were new to me, but having read their very different novels about extraordinary and ordinary women's lives – My Former Heart and When Nights Were Cold – I can't wait for their next books.
Surprisingly, the judges were fairly united in our decisions. We all fell in love with Queenie in Jill Dawson's Lucky Bunny. We were bewitched by Peter Benson's Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke, which is as bizarre and beguiling as its title sounds. And we can't wait to read more by the eight brilliant writers we finally chose. They will be promoted at Foyles, Waterstones, iBookstore, Amazon and independent bookstores all over the UK, and they'll appear on Fiction Uncovered radio (broadcast from Foyles on Charing Cross Road from 20 to 23 June 2012) and on the "Book Barge", a floating bookshop dedicated to Fiction Uncovered which will chug through Manchester (on 15 July), Oxford (15 September) and London (30 September).Perhaps, by this time next year, they will be as famous as they deserve.
My Former Heart, By Cressida Connolly
Fourth Estate, £14.99
"Once, they had met up with an old friend of her mother's, a lady called Jocelyn.... Jocelyn had said that she didn't want to be married, ever; and she certainly, absolutely, didn't want to start a family of her own. 'I dislike children intensely,' she drawled, the corners of her mouth twitching upwards at her own wit. 'They have no conversation.' Ruth had been shocked that her mother had laughed."
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