|Sir Walter Scott|
Stop the presses! News news news!
The longlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2013 is completed, and the shortlist will be announced on Thursday 18th April.
Why doesn't the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction make more waves? It should be front page literary news with spangly stars on. It should be avidly followed by anyone who loves historical fiction, and should cause flutters in the heart of every writer of the genre. It was founded in 2009 by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, who are kinsmen of Sir Walter Scott and keen supporters of his legacy and of the arts in general. With a whopping £25,000 pounds going to the winner, the Walter Scott Prize is one of the richest literary awards in Britain. Past winners are Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall (2010), Andrea Levy for The Long Song (2011), and Sebastian Barry for On Canaan's Side (2012).
So what makes a book eligible for this award? The Walter Scott Prize has borrowed Walter Scott's own definition of historical fiction: the majority of the events described must have taken place at least 60 years ago. Books must have been first published in the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth in the preceding year. The judges look for originality and innovation, good writing, and the ability of the book to shed light on the present as well as the past.
It's easy to be cynical about literary awards, and having been shortlisted for many, won a few and judged several (including the Walter Scott Prize), I know that a good dollop of luck is as necessary as anything else. There are many shoals and weirs to be navigated before the winning book makes it into harbour. The first hurdle is to get the publisher to actually submit the book. This is surprisingly difficult. Some publishers are smart about this, others irredeemably dozy. The judges can and do call in books which publishers don't get around to submitting, but even then a publisher may take an unconscionably long time, or even, in some infuriating cases, refuse to let a book go forward at all.
Reaching the long list is the next goal. In the case of the Walter Scott Prize, several knowledgeable and enthusiastic sifters read through the entries and put forward the ones they think deserve to get through. The books are then circulated to the judges, whose postmen stagger up garden paths during January and February, their shoulders drooping under their book-laden bags.
The meeting to decide on the shortlist is always a humdinger of literary argument. Anyone who belongs to a book group will know how many radically different views a single book can evoke. The judges for the award this year, chaired by Alistair Moffat, are Kirsty Wark, Professor Louise Richardson (Principal of St Andrews University), Jonathan Tweedie of the sponsor Brewin Dolphin, the writer Elizabeth Buccleuch, and myself.
The award is ceremonially announced every year at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose. This takes place in the gardens of Harmony House, an elegant Georgian Mansion which is a stone's throw from the abbey and a few minutes' walk from the centre of Melrose. If you've never been to Melrose, or indeed to the Borders, you've missed out on one of the loveliest parts of Britain. There's a delightful intimacy about the Borders Book Festival, which is surely one of the most civilised annual events in the literary calendar. If you haven't booked up to go already, earmark the dates in your diary: 13th to 16th June. Check the website for the programme at www.bordersbookfestival.org. You really won't regret it.
And here's the long list for 2013:
TOBY’S ROOM Pat Barker
BEAUTIFUL LIES Clare Clark
DAUGHTERS OF MARS Thomas Keneally
BRING UP THE BODIES Hilary Mantel
THE GIRL WHO FELL FROM THE SKY Simon Mawer
THE STREETS Anthony Quinn
AN HONOURABLE MAN Gillian Slovo
THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANS M L Stedman
THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS Tan Twan English
MERIVEL Rose Tremain
POISON TIDE Andrew Williams
THE POTTER’S HAND A. N. Wilson