27th April 2015 - Jonathan Ruppin
Now in its eighth year, the Desmond Elliott Prize commemorates a literary agent who was known in the book trade as one of the stauchest supporters of new writers. Last year's winner was as A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride.
Our web editor, Jonathan Ruppin, who joins Louise Doughty and Viv Groskop on this year's judging panel, looks at why literary awards for first-time writers are so important and explains why the criteria are a little different from other prizes.
Debut novels tend not to fare well when literary awards are handed out. Only four first novels have, for example, won the Booker Prize, and two, perhaps even three, of those are among the more contentious decisions in its history.
But this isn't down to bias or statistical fluke. Writing, as with any skill, develops with experience and authors fortunate enough to build a career in writing fiction have an expertise in the many qualities that make up good writing that is learned incrementally with each book. Raw talent is the kernel: essential, but only the starting point.
Even as the number of books published each year continues to swell, dwindling books coverage in the mainstream media means fewer reviews for debut writers, while shelfspace in chain booksellers is increasingly given over to more proven choices. (Online bookselling counteracts this a little, but the fabled 'long tail' is just that: a very slim boost indeed for the vast majority of otherwise unsung titles.)
So literary awards, publishers will confess, are the last, best hope for sales for many. Prizes function as a safety net, rescuing at least some of the many worthwhile books from the ignominy of being boxed up and returned to the warehouse.
Those that reward first books are especially valuable. It may have taken 24 years for the full-on groundswell of appreciation for Hilary Mantel – even winning the Orange Prize four years before her first Booker had limited impact – but she did at least have the ongoing support of the literary world, where her talent was very much acknowledged, and a core of dedicated fans to sustain her.
One such award is the Desmond Elliott Prize, funded by a bequest from the eponymous agent who was always a strong believer in the importance of backing new writers. First awarded in 2008, it has grown in influence each year, developing a distinct identity in a very crowded calendar: there are at least 400 in the UK alone.
One of the reasons I've long supported it is that its winners who have had the time to publish further books have confirmed their abilities; it's this propensity for identifying talented writers that I'm especially keen to see our judging panel continuing.
One of the potential pitfalls for awards for anything other than first books is the possible influence of a writer's reputation. While the rigorous debate of the judging process usually smothers any instinct to proffer an ersatz lifetime achievement award, I can think of a few examples of acclaimed authors winning major prizes for later works of rather flimsy merits, having previously lost out for their acknowledged masterpieces.
In a way, the Desmond Elliott Prize offers the opposite challenge. Plot is, of course, an important aspect of a novel's appeal, but being carried along by an engaging story doesn't necessarily mean that one is in the hands of a great writer. What I'm keen to identify is the writer whose control of how that story is being told indicates an instinctive ability. None of the books in contention is flawless – and I've read few books at all that are – but as we whittle it down to three, we need to burrow down to the foundations of each of them. I want to feel confident that our winner is a writer whose next book will build upon the achievements of their first.
One of the books on our longlist features subtle shifts in vocabulary and tone depending on the character whose point of view is being represented, deepening the portrayal of each. Another mimics the tropes of a particular sub-genre of fiction in ways that reinforce its themes. A third subtly injects a sense of narrative urgency into passages of more reflective reportage.
It’s this level of analysis that makes judging literary awards such a fascinating process. I can't claim a unique expertise, although I hope reading a couple of contemporary novels a week for twenty years offers me a fair amount of context. And I can't claim that total objectivity is ever quite possible, although that's why there's a panel rather than just one of us: it's really quite hard to sustain an argument when one's own ego is essentially its bedrock. And, as 2014 Man Booker judge Sarah Churchwell unimpeachably countered when I grumbled about one of her shortlist, reading a book three times and then engaging in intense discussion of it, with a room of people who've done the same, does tend to draw out all manner of things that an isolated reading doesn't. There is something in Oscar Wilde's claim that “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all”, whether or not readers can, for all manner of practical reasons, actually do that very often.
Frankly, I'm not even sure I like the term 'judging'. I prefer to see it as an extension of my role as a bookseller, choosing the winner on the grounds that we, the judges, have immersed ourselves in all these books and if we could recommend just one to you, it would be this one.
So the gift of the Desmond Elliott Prize is, I hope, this and a little more. As well as putting one book into readers' hands – and the options of the long- and shortlist for those to whom the winner doesn't appeal (that's allowed: your taste is your taste) – the award gives them the chance to be there from the start, to enjoy the possible journey to... who knows where?