The Importance of Narrative Non-fiction
The Portobello Prize was established in 2017 to showcase the most exciting new voices in narrative non-fiction, offering debut writers an opportunity to seek out and publish an untold story that reflects our times. Below, one of this year's judges, film & TV scout and literary editor Sharmaine Lovegrove, discusses the importance of narrative non-fiction and what she's looking for as a judge. The inaugural 2017 Portobello Prize is open to any UK citizen or UK-based writer who is unpublished in book form, and entries can be submitted until 16th October 2017. More information on how to submit work for consideration can be found on Portobello's website.
I am delighted to be a judge on the inaugural Portobello Prize as it’s important to me to find stories that help characterise our culture and society. When the fast-paced changes in global events mean it’s too challenging for art to attempt to imitate life, it’s vital that we have voices from lived and explored experiences to better understand the state of the world.
Social media can be an echo chamber where algorithms often reflect our own thoughts and beliefs. Whilst this can be encouraging when you’re in need of some support to bolster your thinking, it can also be damaging as the realisation that (millions of) people think differently from you can suddenly come as a destabilising shock.
Narrative non-fiction is crucial for readers to understand the world from a different perspective. Reading Naples 44 by Norman Lewis when I started working at Foyles at the age of 18, I was transported to a battle zone in a city that is now famed for coffee, ice cream and margarita pizzas. I would later visit and come to love the city, but had I not have read Lewis I would never have known of Naples under siege. My romantic view of the city would have lacked a depth of knowledge of what had happened before the internet gave me tips on where to visit. Without such insights we are in danger of seeing things from our own perspective exclusively and this limits our experience.
The book that came to mind as I raced to Grenfell Towers the morning after the fire to help with the relief efforts was Estates by Lynsey Hanley. I have never lived on an estate but when I read Hanley’s book in 2007, I was shaken, and I now understood why people who live in social housing were angry and marginalised. Hanley’s important polemic on the housing issue in the UK argues that the kind of homes we live in present a greater divide than perceived class issues in terms of influence, children, work or earnings. A decade later, Hanley’s book seemed more resonant than ever as residents from Grenfell and those who live in estates across Britain expressed their anger that successive governments had given their lives little value and that their voices had gone unheard.
My interest in publishing, books and storytelling has always been rooted in an obsession to understand people and the society we live in. This is not always just about politics but a desire for a core comprehension of humanity and our shape-shifting world. Take a book like H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald – a narrative non-fiction memoir about Helen’s determination to train a goshawk whilst grieving for the loss of her father. This book captured the imagination and hearts of the British public and spurred a whole genre of brilliant memoirs on grief by previously unpublished writers and thinkers.
There are many literary prizes, but narrative non-fiction often gets overlooked for plaudits in favour of fiction, debuts and poetry. To craft a narrative and instil your thoughts on the lives of others is challenging and crucial. It’s important to champion unchartered curiosities and dynamic enquiries as this is what makes human beings progress.
The key element for submission to this brilliant prize is having an idea, and then having the conviction to follow that thought to sketch out a narrative. I am looking forward to reading proposals for original concepts and themes. I can’t wait to venture into unknown worlds and be enlightened by experiences that are entirely outside of my own – or perhaps chime with me but which I have not yet encountered on the page.
In terms of subject matter, it’s wide open: sexuality, parenthood, race, science, exploration, conflict, money, fashion, art – anything! Above all, bring us new perspectives that help us to consider things from a different viewpoint. As a judge and above all as a reader, I hope to gain an understanding of what today’s writers are thinking. I will be alert for books – and even genres – for the future.
Author photo © Laura Berry