Eyes on the Prize

Is this one of the emptiest motivational statements ever invented? I mean it must come close right? No-one sits down to write a prize winning work – it’s enough pressure just filling out a page with a few hundred words.  The worry over the next bit of dialogue,  the next chapter,  the next paragraph, this character background, that description.  The whole thing coming together in some sort of cohesive, sensible, whole.  Every word having to be dragged forth from the depths of somewhere. These are the things that concern writers.

Publishers and marketeers however like prizes.    Prizes achieve two things; increased visibility and money – both of which a writer needs.  But to win a prize is also an encouragement so I should get down off my high horse and start trying to answer the main question of today which is who will win the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020?    

Or if it is not a big question in terms of global pandemics, it is a big question for book bloggers who care about such things. 

So far on the 2020 shortlist I have read:

Bernardine Evaristo Girl, Woman, Other

Natalie Haynes 1000 Ships

Maggie O’Farrell Hamnet (Reviewed Below)

Jennie Offill Weather

Photograph of Frensham Ponds. By Frances Spurrier

I have not managed to read Hilary Mantel The Mirror and the Light and I have not managed to read Dominicana by Angie Cruz

I have thus read only four out of the six shortlisted titles.  Yet today, 9th September, at 7pm UK time the winner is being announced.   So I have run out of time.  While it is not normal to  choose a winner on the basis of having read four out of six shortlisted books (!)  I am in the fortunate position of being a blogger and not a judge.   

Evaristo’s book concerns itself with the experiences of 12 different women of colour in contemporary UK with bits set in the US.  Natalie Haynes book is of women’s experiences as survivors of war in ancient Greece at the time of the Trojan wars and Hamnet  – in 16th century Stratford on Avon where Maggie O’Farrell lays her tale  (incidentally also a time when theatres are shut because of the plague) is about a woman and two children whom history has forgotten while canonising her playwright husband.    

Photo by Jarod Lovekamp on Pexels.com

These books are all works of vision, the writing is lucid the characterisation articulate, they are all executed with compelling panache.   These authors have created story where there was no story before,  just absence, silence and history’s marginal note.  These authors have produced strong and highly visible stories of women from times and places where women have been most silenced and most invisible.  Only Jenny Offill has dealt with the future.  Without the imperative of historical context,  she alone considers how we are moving into an unknown territory of climate destruction and for a while she was my front runner.    

Then as I read each one of these books I thought that this must be the one that wins. Until I move on to the next and then think, no, this one.  Ultimately perhaps it does not matter.  All these books are here to stay.  Today I vote with my heart rather than my head.  I do not think I shall ever again envisage the life of the bard of Stratford without seeing it as O’Farrell has written it, without seeing him married to the Agnes of this book, or parent to the Hamnet of her devising,  an unknown child whose name was given to one of the world’s most famous plays.  O’Farrell has written a scene for Hamnet and his twin sister Judith which will bare comparison with anything that was penned by their famous father, and this is my choice for winner


Hamnet

The name Shakespeare overwhelms every thought that one might have of writing about him.  I mean unless from a purely biographical point of view and that must be hard enough.  In any book that is ‘about’ him, he must automatically be the most important character must he not?

How do you overcome that?  This is the genius of O’Farrell’s book.  In the whole 372 pages the man himself is referred to as the husband, the son, the father, even the latin tutor, or ‘Latin Boy’ by Bartholomew, his brother in law, but never is the name Shakespeare mentioned.  Not even a ‘Will’.  And although it sounds as though it cannot be made to work, it does work and I was half way through the novel before I even thought about it.   This is what gives the other characters in the book room to breathe and particular his wife Agnes and son Hamnet.

“How can he live without her?  He cannot.  It is like asking the heart to live without the lungs, like tearing the moon out of the sky and asking the stars to do its work, like expecting the barley to grow without rain.”

So what new do we learn about the bard? Nothing.  At least nothing except that he did not do it all on his own, that he had support.  That the cost of all that success was not borne solely by him.

“The father comes to the new house twice, sometimes three times a year.  He is home for a month in the second year they live in the house.  There have been food riots in the city he tells them, with apprentices marching on Southwark and pillaging shops.  It is also plague season again in London and the playhouses are shut.”  

Some things just don’t change.

The Double Edged Sword of the Literary Prize – and The Legend of The Tiger’s Wife

Prizes can be a double edged sword.  Yes it’s great to win them, the publicity, the fuss, the champagne, what’s not to die for?  But maybe this draws attention away from equally worthy writing.  But then we have to live in the real world, which costs money, etc.  So I go round in circles.

I’m currently reading my way through the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.  What a talented lot of writers are out there.   It occurred to me that I knew nothing about the ethos of the prize so looked it up.

ralph-mayhew-EiGBmms-alk-unsplash

 

The Women’s Prize for Fiction came about after a group of people – journalists, novelists, agents, publishers, came together in 1992 in a flat in London.   The Booker Prize of 1991 had included no women at all, and the group got together to discuss whether this mattered and what should be done about it.

The novelist Kate Mosse, one of the founder members of the prize, writes on the website:

“After some hours and several bottles of wine, the idea of setting up a new kind of literary prize – one which would celebrate women’s creativity, one that would be truly international (nationality or country of residence being no bar to eligibility), one that would have a programme of educational, literacy and research initiatives as integral to the Prize – was born. A prize that would be fun!”

Originally sponsored by Orange, the prize is currently sponsored by Deloitte, Nat West and Bailey’s.

I have a  natural aversion to commercial sponsorship of literary prizes.  But I am overcoming that on the grounds that we have to live in the real world and to do this costs money, plus I understand authors badly need the publicity and book sales which a win brings in its wake.   I am also struggling to overcome my even more natural aversion to having Orange or Deloitte tell me what to read.  Yet I have come to the conclusion I must at least to some extent get off my high horse about commercial sponsorship of literary prizes and the arts in general – with the exception of fossil fuel companies or bad pharma naturally.

 

Also I worry what are the criteria against which these things are judged?  It is gobsmacking that even in the final decade of the 20th century books by women were not thought worthy of even longlisting for a major prize.  Yes this is true according to Wiki.  Unbelievable but true!  We’re not talking 19th century here, we talking 1990s.

Since the inception of The Booker Prize (in 1969) 31 men have won, 16 women.    But when in 2019 Margaret Atwood won for The Testaments and Bernardine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other (the latter being incidentally the first black woman ever to win)  there was reason to hope that things were changing.  I would like to think that this change is in part due to the influence and the success of the Women’s Prize.

Tiger'sWife

Still I digress, back to the shortlist.  Téa Obreht’s book  The Tiger’s Wife  is set against the background of war in The Balkans fought in the region formerly known as Yugoslavia – therefore in the last decade of the 20th century.

If this book was  a cake recipe it would contain a splash of realism, a large handful of magic realism and (like Jenny Offill’s book Weather) a dollop of insight into the losses we incur faced with our failing relationship with the natural world that sustains us.  As a story, it is quite hard to sum up.  It is a storyteller’s book which juggles a seemingly realist narrative against a world of spirit and superstition.   In short it is rather wonderful.

“The tree stands near the fence where the braided cornfields begin, and Marko Parovic tells me the people of Galina avoid it all costs; its branches he says cast a net in which souls are caught as they rise to heaven and the ravens that roost there pick the souls out of the bark like worms.”

The tiger’s wife is not real – or she is real in the minds of some of the locals – which leads to tragedy and then legend.  There is a deathless man and two Doctors, one the granddaughter of the other who form the backbone of the narrative.  There is of course, a tiger, and some of the writing about him form the most lyrical passages in the book.

“I’m told that the tiger was first sighted on the Galina ridge, above town, during a snowstorm at the end of December.  Who knows how long he had already been there, hiding in the hollows of fallen trees; but on that day, the herdsman Vladiša lost a calf in the blizzard and went up the mountain to retrieve it.  In a thicket of saplings, he came across the tiger yellow eyed and bright as a blood moon, with the calf already dead, hanging in its jaws.”

Someone from The Guardian describes  the story as a ‘matryoshka-style narrative’ referring to the Russian dolls that nest one inside the other, which seems to me an ideal description.   The Tiger’s Wife is a story on many levels, some of them real, some mythological.

The question is whether it works overall.  I found it very readable and readily entertaining, thought provoking and humane.  Will it win?  Who knows.  Obreht is obviously massively talented, but there is strong competition.  I’d love to know what others think about literary prizes.

Next up is A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes.