How to be a contender

First published: Mslexia 

Winning a literary prize means more than a swanky party and fat cheque, as Danuta Kean found out

In a taxi hurtling through London, her family beside her, author Emma Donohue took a phone call that changed her life: it was news that her as yet unpublished novel Room had been longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. ‘The thing about these prizes is that we shouldn’t fix on who wins, because the magic works on those who are longlisted and shortlisted too,’ recalls the novelist, who went on to be shortlisted for the Man Booker and the 2011 Orange Prize.

What it meant was that Donohoe was able to shake Room free of the crime fiction tag. ‘It would have been so easy with that book for it to be dismissed as genre because of the subject matter, but the long-listing said to the world: watch out, this book has literary ambition.’

The novel was Donohue’s seventh. Previous work had garnered enviable reviews, but in the UK lack of sales meant she couldn’t get a publisher for its predecessor The Sealed Letter. Prize contention meant within months she had deals across the world and guaranteed interest in her next novel. ‘The Sealed Letter has since become an international bestseller and quite a few of my earlier books have been republished,’ she says.

As the judges prepare to award the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (as the Orange has become), Donohue’s experience hints at what the winner and her shortlisted and longlisted rivals can expect. Quite simply, a prize listing is essential for a literary author’s survival in a publishing environment in which ‘obvious’ bestsellers and celebrity ‘vehicles’ dominate.

Donohue’s experience mirrors closely that of Lionel Shriver, whose 2003 novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin took the 2005 Orange Prize by storm. Her eighth novel, Shriver admits that without the prize she may not be published now. ‘It always helps to win a least one major prize to set you apart from what else is out there, ‘ she says.

The book had already gathered a head of steam when it took the prize, but, as with Donohue, the accolade underlined its literary ambition, an essential component of any prize contender. For Shriver, one difference made by the Orange was that she no longer had to scrabble around for commissions to keep the wolf from the door but could take her pick of work. ‘I was able to take advantage of offers for the kind of commissions I had previously struggled to get,’ she explains.

You don’t have to win the Booker to understand the impact of a literary prize. Smaller prizes, such as the 60-year old Authors’ Club First Novel Award may not bring sales, but they do assure publishers that an author is worth sticking with, according to Authors Club chairman Chris Schüler. ‘It has a great track record for establishing talent,’ he explains. ‘We are looking at potential as well as the achievement of the author.’ A roll call of past winners testifies to the prize’s talent spotting reputation: from Alan Sillitoe and Paul Bailey to Jackie Kay.

Like other prizes, the Authors Club Award shies away from exclusive literary parameters – those can be left for the newly founded Folio Prize. ‘We’re looking for literary fiction but not necessary the most worthy. Being a good read is absolutely no deterrent,’ Schüler explains, but adds: ‘There has to be an element of originality. On the whole we’d opt for an interesting exciting book over a perfectly formed one.’

Originality will be a key facet of The Bailey’s winner, whatever wins, says founder and chair Kate Mosse: ‘It has to be original, accessible and excellent.’ Perhaps mindful of the furore over comments about ‘readability’ at the Man Booker Prize 2011, she emphasises: ‘Accessibility is not the same as readability, but it is definitely not solipsistic. It looks out to readers not into itself.’

Chair of Bailey’s judges Helen Fraser, a former head of publishing giant Penguin, explains further: ‘What we’re looking for is real originality: books that surprise, delight and grip.’ Though this does not exclude genre, it excludes books that stick hard to the neat packaging of plot and character in much genre fiction, she says: ‘The thing about genre fiction is you always know how it is going to end up. The journey can be enjoyable and fun, but it’s not going to astonish you.’

The most prestigious prizes insist nominations are made by publishers rather than by the authors. This effectively limits entries to those published by traditional houses and excludes self-published work – an understandable if controversial limitation considering the juries for everything from the Authors Club Award to the various Costa category awards have to read submissions piles 150 titles high.

But as increasing numbers of talented novelists are forced to self-publish thanks to conservative editorial policies at the large houses, there is growing feeling that the prizes must open up to quality self-published fiction. It is a bullet already bitten by Paul Burston, founder of the W H Smith Travel sponsored Polari First Book Prize. It rewards a book that explores the LGBT experience be it fiction, non-fiction, poetry or short story collection. ‘It was important to us to include self-published work, because the attitude that self-published books are vanity published has changed,’ Burston explains.

Excluding self-published authors risked missing great work from potential Polari winners , he adds: ‘Because traditional publishers regard a lot of LGBT work as risky, the writers aren’t getting mainstream deals and are turning to self-publishing.’ A sign of the quality of the self-published work submitted is that the first winner was James Maker’s self-published Autofellatio, and last year Rebecca Idris’s self-published The Sitar was shortlisted, though the winner was Mari Hannah’s Pan Macmillan published The Murder Wall.

But perhaps the best thing about becoming a prize winner is the affirmation it gives to those who work in a solitary profession, as Ros Barber, whose The Marlowe Papers won the Desmond Elliott Prize, the Authors Club Award and was longlisted for the Orange, says: ‘It’s a big deal to win something or be longlisted. It is recognition that you are on the right track and doing something that works.’ An important thing for any writer to hear whether she is sat in a taxi or a garret.




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