Sunday, November 15, 2015

Young Writer of the Year Award

Writing, and promotion of my new book, may have been keeping me away from this blog lately but yesterday I attended an event for bloggers which has brought me right back. The Sunday Times and literary agents Peters Fraser and Dunlop kindly invited us to meet the writers shortlisted for The Sunday Times / PFD Young Writer of the Year Award, and it was a very enjoyable and interesting afternoon which raised some key questions about the promotion and nurturing of young writers at the starts of their careers.

Begun in 1991 but temporarily discontinued since 2009, the newly-rejuvenated award, administered by the Society of Authors, is for a full-length book by a UK or Irish writer between the ages of 18 and 35. It boasts among its previous winners such luminaries as Helen Simpson (the first winner), Caryl Phillips, Paul Farley and Zadie Smith, a record justifiably prompting the prize's reinstatement, prime movers of which were Andrew Holgate, literary editor of The Sunday Times and PFD's Caroline Michel. Judges this year were Andrew Holgate, Chief Fiction Reviewer Peter Kemp, and previous winner Sarah Waters.

The prize is for a book of either fiction or non-fiction, extended this year to include Irish, self-published and digital books. Andrew Holgate explained that it is avowedly literary in intent, and the shortlist bears this out, consisting of three literary novels and a book of poetry - no non-fiction makes the cut this year as sufficiently literary in character.

The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota (above), which was also shortlisted for this year's Man Booker, is a huge sweeping novel following the individual progress of each of four young characters who have had to leave India for Britain (I think he said four: I'm only a third of the way through the novel and so far three have been dealt with in detail). It is Sunjeev's second novel, but the other three books on the shortlist are debuts: Ben Fergusson's Betty-Trask- and HWA-Debut-Award-winning The Spring of Kasper Meier (Little, Brown) set in Berlin immediately after WWII, Sara Taylor's The Shore (Heinemann), a multi-viewpoint fiction charting a community on the rural coast of Virginia, which is being shortlisted just about everywhere (Bailey's Prize, Guardian First Book Award), and Loop of Jade, Sarah Howe's collection of poems exploring her dual British-Chinese heritage, which has garnered shortlistings in the T S Eliot and Forward First Collection prizes.

I would say that all of these books have a kind of literary ease that amply qualifies them for this shortlisting - each of the authors is wonderfully at home in the language, each has a sharp and original eye and accurate feel for our physical world and a psychological acuity, and each is powered by a deep moral sense. (You could tell that last anyway; they were such nice people!) (I've begun all of the books - for this event I broke my general rule of reading only one book at a time in order to give it its due attention, and it's a testament to these books that they're all nevertheless very individual and vivid in my mind.) Pick up any one of these four books and you know you're in the hands of a born writer - proved, perhaps, by the fact that Sunjeev confirmed the rumour that he hadn't read a novel until he picked up Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children at the age of, I think, eighteen.

But what happens to a born literary writer in a culture hellbent on the commercial and on fetishising the Next New Thing, in which authors are routinely dropped after non-mega-selling debuts? It's a question, I think, at the heart of this prize. No doubt there will be accusations that, as a prize for young writers, it's contributing to the cult of youth, but I think its serious literary purpose runs counter to that, designed as it is to give status, exposure and encouragement to young writers writing into our culture through its squeezed literary end. Not, though, that one of these books fails to be exciting and engrossing.

In connection with this, after excellent readings by the authors, Andrew Holgate, chairing the Q & A, asked all four writers about the question of risk involved in the writing of their novels. It has to be said that all four books were published by mainstream publishers, and that none - with the exception perhaps of Sarah Howe's poetry collection - begins with the kind of unfamiliarity of language or tone that would frighten the horses. However, as he pointed out, Sunjeev goes on to create fundamental temporal shifts - we constantly move back in time to the earlier histories of the characters, slowly discovering how they are in the situation at the start of the novel - and in particular with the refusal to explain the Indian words his characters use all the time, expecting the reader to elucidate from the context, or, as Sunjeev put it, to just accept it as part of the music of the novel. Sara Taylor, Andrew Holgate suggested, takes similar risks with time, and with her multi-viewpoint narrative (although she replied that she was surprised it was seen as 'risk': to her the writing of it was simply fun). Sarah Howe's book is striking for its wide range of forms, unusual in a poetry collection, raging from pieces that are more or less prose poems (she called them 'prose') to entirely lyrical verse. Ben Fergusson takes the striking decision to eschew the usual youthful tenor of gay literature and portray a middle-aged man blackmailed for his homosexuality (and very gripping it is).

My writing and blogging colleague Dan Holloway asked if any of the four had however felt any brake on them as beginners. Did they have any sense that it would be only later, once they were established, that they would truly be able to write what they wanted in the way that they wanted? Ben said he simply didn't think about expectations, and Sarah Howe said that she had never even thought of an audience when she sat down to write her poems, it had been an entirely private enterprise, and - interestingly - she now finds it weird to think that that there are things in her poems that she wouldn't even discuss with her family but which other people, strangers, are now reading. Sunjeev, the only one shortlisted with a second book, said that when he wrote it he did have to think about marketing, simply because he'd been through the process with his first book. However, he felt that, although he was indeed reacting to his first book in writing his second, it was more a question of reacting against himself and developing.* Perhaps inevitably for someone whose PhD is in censorship in the production of American first novels, Sara Taylor made clear that in writing her time-shifting multi-viewpoint book she was strongly reacting against cultural expectations, and the only limitation she felt was that of not wanting to reveal family secrets, a sentiment that Sarah Howe echoed, if I remember rightly. It was clear, however, that some of the four had, since writing their books, experienced the negative pressures of marketing: earlier, as we mingled, Sara Taylor had talked about the fact that she likes to call her book a 'fractured narrative', but had been made aware that in marketing terms the phrase had negative connotations, and there was a potential pigeon-holing problem in retailing terms for a book which has been referred to as both a novel and a collection of linked stories. For Sara herself that liminal quality is a strength, and Dan and I heartily agreed with her - and it's excellent that prize judges are rewarding her for it.

It was a thought-provoking and very enjoyable afternoon, and a privilege to be able to meet and talk to the authors and the prize organisers, and I thank them.

(I'm afraid I didn't get a photo of Sarah Howe reading: I was so engrossed in her mesmerising reading that I forgot, but she's there in the background of the photos of the others reading.)

A week tomorrow - the evening of Monday 23rd - some of the shortlisted authors and previous winners including Helen Simpson will be reading and speaking at Foyle's. Do go if you can - I would if I could! (Beer and pizza too, apparently!) Details here.

* Dan Holloway points out to me that in answer to his question, Sunjeev also said that he would never have felt able to write such a long and complex book the first time around as he wasn't ready. I missed Sunjeev actually saying that, and it's a crucial point. As Dan says: 'Yet he clearly was ready enough as a writer to be published. Which further emphasizes what we talked about afterwards - that it is so important for new writers to be given space, to know that they will be given several books in which to discover their voices before being dropped.' (Thank you, Dan.)

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Young Writer of the Year Award

The shortlist has been announced for the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award.

Here's a summary from the press release:

Covering a rich variety of genres and forms, the 2015 shortlist includes: Ben Fergusson with his critically acclaimed historical fiction debut, The Spring of Kasper MeierSarah Howe and her poetic exploration of heritage and identity, Loop of JadeSunjeev Sahota with his second novel, the Man Booker shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, a timely take on the British immigrant experience; and Sara Taylor’s Baileys-nominated collection of interlinked short stories, The Shore.

I've just downloaded them all to my Kindle and can't wait to get reading this evening!

Monday, November 02, 2015

Three reading group discussions

Writing, and the publication of Used to Be, have kept me away from blogging recently, including the writing up of our reading group discussions, but here are the last three discussions which, post book launch, I've managed to write up over the last weekend:

The Bridge by Ian Banks

Christie Malry's Own Double Entry by B S Johnson

The Quiet Soldier: Phuong's Story by Creina Mansfield

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here