What do we make of a literary prize that picks eight winners? And one that rewards those not setting the world alight with their debuts nor those whom Alan Yentob might dedicate an Imagine series to, but writers who are on their second, third, maybe even 10th novel, quietly getting on with the next one?
Eight winners, as opposed to one, does up-end our traditional notions of contest, and winning, but it also makes the judging process gratifying, or so I found when I judged the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize 2014, which revealed its winners this week: Ben Brooks’s Lolito, about a paedophilic relationship that inverts the gender of the classic Lolita story; Cynan Jones’sThe Dig, a small, beautifully-formed tale of loss set against the brutality of badger baiting; Gareth R Roberts’s Whatever Happened to Billy Parks?, about an ageing, alcoholic footballer that looks at celebrity culture with surreal inventiveness; Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway, which takes on the legend of Ernest Hemingway from the perspective of his four wives; Gerard Woodward’s Vanishing, a sprawling novel of war, betrayal, art and the truth of storytelling itself; Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, which tackles homosexuality in London’s Caribbean community with great levity; Lesley Glaister’s Little Egypt, that studies sibling love within a dysfunctional family and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, about a traumatic past that continues to mark the protagonist’s present.
In some ways, choosing more than one winner made the judging trickier. The temptation was to gun for your ‘winner’, the others mere bargaining chips (Edward St Aubyn would doubtless have fun here). Which is why it was good to have a prize chair in Matt Haig, who asked us not to aim for compromise or even consensus but to advocate for books we loved, even if the others really hated them. There is at least one such ‘Marmite’ book here.
Some – Evaristo and Glaister – have been writing for decades with big backlists while Brooks has six novels to his name, aged 22! Wyld, Roberts and Wood are, meanwhile, all on their second novels. While Wyld has been recognised for her talent (she’s on Granta revered ‘best young British authors’ list), the purpose of this prize is to get book-lovers – not critics or publishers – to appreciate her too.
Woodward gives us a novel that is making no concession to the easily distracted readers that Tim Parks referred to this week. Parks (who has written for us on page 27) noted the way in which he thought the Internet was changing novel reading, and writing, especially long, stylistically challenging novels that require long hours of silence and sustained attention. Woodward’s book does just that at 400 pages, and set at such a pace that we are still in the protagonist’s school years at page 150. Jones, in turn, proves that the short novel can be as epic, and stylistically demanding as a long one. Set amid hostile nature, it reflects on loss, mourning and how the natural cycle of death and decay impacts on the soul. Not bad at 176 pages.
All eight books, in fact, are correctives to the idea that the novel is on its last legs. Read them this summer to (re)discover the fact.
Then the other rule: they must all be British. There are few prizes left that focus on British fiction alone, and this is the one aspect that most surprised me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have, for its breadth, its colour and its talent.