Monday, November 21, 2016

Literature and marketing: The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award

This award, relaunched last year after a seven-year break, has produced another stunning shortlist and is proving once more to be a beacon of integrity in a literary prize world that seems increasingly in thrall to commercialism. Not that any of these books shouldn't sell in bucketloads: while each is highly original, in some way unlike anything that has come before, there's plenty of entertainment and immersion here, those qualities that tend to be associated with 'saleable' books - a word which all too often means 'nothing too different from what we already know sells.'

The shortlist:
  • An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray Originals)
  • Physical by Andrew McMillan (Cape Poetry)
  • Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter (Faber)
  • The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood (Scribner)
Four innovative books by authors under 35: a collection of short stories, a book of poetry, a novel, and a fiction composed of both prose and poetry. I haven't yet read them all, but I've sampled those I haven't and am immensely impressed by every one. 

Jessie Greengrass's collection of short stories I do know, as it won the Edge Hill Short Story prize in the summer. The stories range across place and time, their protagonists haunted by the nexus of history in which they find themselves, and by their sense of themselves within it. I'm honestly bowled over by Jessie's insight and imaginative power, the rhythms of her prose and the originality of her voice. At an event for bloggers on Saturday, prize judge and Sunday Times Literary Editor Andrew Holgate interviewed three of the authors, and it was clear from Jessie's answers that her background in Philosophy strongly influences her as a writer of fiction - all to the good, I'd say: her stories, while entertaining and engaging, are profound.

Andrew McMillan's poetry collection Physical comes already garlanded with poetry prizes, and deservedly so.  Powerfully moving, tough yet tender, these poems interrogate the notion of masculinity and of male relationships in their different forms. In the interview, Andrew spoke of the way that literature has traditionally been the male gaze on women, and he was moved to subvert that by writing about the male gaze on men - which, along with a miraculous combination of total lack of punctuation and ease of reading - makes his book truly innovative.

Max Porter's Grief is the Thing with Feathers is the most obviously innovative in terms of form. I opened it up and was stunned and can't wait to read it. A giant crow straight out of Ted Hughes swoops on a grief-stricken widower and Hughes scholar newly coping with single parenthood, and what follows is a thrilling chorus of voices - including that of the crow - buzzing with energy and linguistic innovation and conveyed in a mix of prose, prose-poetry and poems. (Max wasn't present at the meeting.)

I had started reading Benjamin Wood's The Ecliptic on the way on the train and was immediately intrigued. The setting is a gated refuge for beleaguered artists on an island off the coast of Turkey in the 1960s, and the story centres on a celebrated female artist who has lost faith in her own creativity and a teenage boy who arrives to unsettle the community. It seems that the novel takes great risks with structure, which of course I haven't got to yet, and Andew Holgate asked Ben whether he had been nervous about doing this. Yes, he said, he had been petrified and thought of 'pulling the ripcord' and creating a 'safer' ending instead, but decided finally to meet the challenge he'd set himself.

Finally in the interview, Andrew H asked the authors about the fact that they had been supported by their publishers in their innovations (which publishers have seemed increasingly unlikely to do), and all three talked warmly and enthusiastically about the fact that they had been. Ben said that after a huge battle to get his first novel published (The Ecliptic is his second), he was now enjoying a lack of creative interference from his editors at Scribner. Jessie felt very lucky that in this time when publishers have tended to concentrate on single books (as marketable commodities), her publisher, John Murray, is concerned to develop an author's career and give her time to find her voice.

This last discussion struck a very deep chord with me. When I was editing the short-story magazine Metropolitan with Ailsa Cox, our local arts funder sent me on a course to learn how to market it. The tutor asked all those in the group (all editors of literary magazines) to stand up if we cooked. Then he asked those who didn't cook pasta to sit down. Next, he asked those who didn't cook spaghetti to sit. He pointed to the four remaining standing - those who cooked spaghetti - and announced to the class that this was his target market, the people to whom he would be bothering selling his spaghetti spoon. Targeting the rest, it was implied, would be a waste of time and resources.

Well, if Ailsa and I had gone along with that marketing philosophy, we'd have stopped bothering with Metropolitan there and then. We had started it precisely because literary magazines were being squeezed out by commercial pressures, which made it seem as if no one wanted or needed them any more. (It was just before the internet, which made them so much more possible again.) Of course we did use marketing techniques, quite aggressively, in fact, but our fundamental marketing philosophy - taken quite shamelessly from the snake-oil salesman - was that you can sell anything if you want to badly enough (our magazine was in nearly every branch of Waterstone's). The alternative marketing philosophy, embraced by publishers in recent years (and even by arts funders, as we experienced - we had also been required to conduct a feasibility study), that it's only worth supplying an already established demand, has been hugely detrimental to the world of literature. After all, it's a massive category error: as my teenaged son said to me at the time, fiction, unlike a spaghetti spoon, is so much more than a mere practical tool. You could even say that the essence and role of literature itself is an ability to bring people fulfilments they never knew they wanted. (Interestingly, it is the most successful tech companies of our contemporary world that are busy doing just that.) So I'm excited about this prize, which is so consciously bucking the trend, and take my hat off to the shortlistees' publishers who continue in the honourable tradition of bringing us startling literature unlike what has gone before and with the ability to change our psychic worlds.

I honestly wouldn't like to say who is likely to win, and I don't envy the task of the judges, Andrew Holgate, broadcaster James Naughtie and historian Stella Tillyard, - or that of the bloggers on the shadow judging panel.

The prize is sponsored by both The Sunday Times and literary agency Peters Fraser and Dunlop, and administered by The Society of Authors.

Thursday, November 10, 2016