The Blagger's Guide to... the Desmond Elliott prize

All you need to know about the hottest literary topic of the week

The longlist for the seventh annual Desmond Elliott Prize will be formally announced at a reception at Foyles bookshop in central London on Tuesday.

It will include: The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber (Sceptre); The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence (Hodder & Stoughton); The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan (William Heinemann); The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland (Harper Fiction); Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman (Serpent’s Tail); The Fields by Kevin Maher (Little, Brown); Signs of Life by Anna Raverat (Picador); Seldom Seen by Sarah Ridgard (Hutchinson); Jammy Dodger by Kevin Smith (Sandstone Press); The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace (Simon & Schuster). That’s 70 per cent women. Anyone would think women were good at writing fiction.

The prize, for new fiction, was founded thanks to a condition in the will of the literary agent and publisher Desmond Elliott (right), a five-foot-tall dandy who discovered Jilly Cooper, among others. Frequently described as “waspish”, Elliott drank only champagne, flew on Concorde and bought his groceries at Fortnum & Mason (or at least, his staff did), where the prize ceremony is now held. “Travelling west of Marble Arch gives me a nosebleed,” he said. Elliott was educated at the Royal Masonic Orphanage in Dublin after his father died, leaving his mother able to support only one of her two sons. He travelled to London, aged 16, with only £2 in his pocket, aiming to become a publisher. Having been sacked from most of the grand old British publishing houses, he set up business on his own and ended up representing authors including Penny Vincenzi, Linda Lee-Potter, Candida Lycett Green and Claire Rayner. Among his more questionable achievements was introducing Tim Rice to Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

...

Elliott spent his holidays on Fire Island, New York, and at Key West, Florida, taking with him supplies from Fortnum’s. He never left without real angelica for making trifles. “If I hadn’t gone into publishing I would have worked in perfumes,” he once said.

Winners of the prize have gone on to varying success. Last year’s winner, Grace McCleen, said afterwards: “I am not very proud of this book”, The Land of Decoration, and promptly announced her retirement from writing. “The writing is a symptom of [my] unhappiness,” she said, adding that giving it up would be “brilliant”.

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Anjali Joseph was the winner in 2011 with Saraswati Park, and Ali Shaw in 2010 with The Girl With Glass Feet. In 2009, Edward Hogan won for Blackmoor, thanking the judges especially for awarding him the £10,000 prize because he was “skint”. Hogan listed his former occupations as “grass-strimmer, pot-washer, conservatory salesman, bloke holding the board in Leicester Square, and teacher”. In 2008, Nikita Lalwani won the prize with her novel, Gifted, and donated all of her winnings to Liberty.

One of 2008’s judges, Penny Vincenzi, used to work in Harrods’ lending library. Vincenzi looked after readers whose names began with S, and said that Sir Malcolm Sargent was “an absolute sweetheart, very polite”, but another customer once threw a book at her for being a “complete idiot”. Vincenzi is now the author of novels including The Decision, Old Sins and Love in the Afternoon and Other Delights.

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The Desmond Elliott Prize shortlist will be announced on 23 May, and the winner on 27 June.

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