Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Playing Paris: judging beautiful books

by Antonia Senior

Last year, I was asked by the Historical Writers Association to chair the judging committee of a new award: the HWA Endeavour Ink Gold Crown. I had been on the judging panel the year before, for the Debut Crown, so I had some inkling of the scale of the task.

We announced the longlist a few weeks ago, and the shortlist is coming out on Thursday. Watch your twitter feeds, History girls, and help us trumpet and holler these wonderful books to the world. Prizes are crucial in an environment in which even the most brilliant writers struggle with the issue of visibility.

Waterstones, the only bookseller of scale left, is risk averse, buying a handful of copies of books it likes, rather than taking bets on large numbers. When it does take a book to its heart, it can work miracles: witness the extraordinary rise of The Essex Serpent. But that is one book. The supermarkets are now major players and entirely judge a book by its cover. If the last bestseller was blue and bosomy, they will take a punt on the next blue and bosomy one which comes along. Meanwhile, online, algorithms push readers deep into silos based on previous purchases. Algorithms tend to make bestsellers sell more, while the unknowns sink, traceless.

The timidity of booksellers, the rise of the algorithm and the panicking of the publishers make it a tough environment in which to be an author. Enter the prize.

My postman hates me. He already delivers a baby-elephant weight of books to me every month, in my capacity as a reviewer for The Times. Add the prize books, and things become ridiculous. As the the deadline drew to a close, the post office had to lay on a special van for my post.

Book Post. GULP!

We had almost 100 entries. An incredible start to the prize's life.

But as the books tumbled from the pile it became obvious that we had an issue to resolve. It was something that we had anticipated - I had a lengthy chat with Imogen Robertson, the HWA's excellent chair, before joining the judging panel. It is this: how do you judge such different books? How do you play Paris, when you are choosing between sub-genres? Paris was not asked to choose between three different types of beauty; he was choosing between three personifications of womanhood, only one of which was pure beauty.

How do you hold a booker prize contender in one hand, and a swords 'n sandals thriller in the other, and choose between them? On what basis? We had literary books, psychological thrillers, crime novels, adventures. We had a glorious smorgasboard of different styles and types, whose only common denominator was a historical setting. But this is not a prize for settings.

We decided that our answer to this conundrum - and our governing principle - should be passion. It is, after all passion, that brought most of us as readers and writers to historical fiction. Passion that grabbed us as children, pinned us to our spot under the duvet with a torch, and forced us to read just... one.. more... page. Of Sutcliffe, Forester, O'Brien, Renault, Plaidy, Cornwell, Graves, Scott, Dunnett, Dumas. Not always high literary writers: but all possessing that magical alchemy of making the past seem real, and urgent and peopled with characters of flesh and heart.

This passion can take us to the murky, brain-aching depths of a literary novel - there are several books on our longlist that cannot be tackled lightly. But it can also take us to a battle-field, where, scarred and breathless we watch our hero falter. To the beginning of a love affair, or end of a voyage.

I am not denying historical fiction its intellectual heft here - no need to do that in the wake of Hilary Mantel's utterly brilliant Reith lectures. I am merely making the case that a purely intellectual satisfaction is not all that this particular genre offers to its devotees. The prize, and its longlist, reflects that conviction.

This is the long-list:

Watch out for the shortlist on Thursday and let us know what you think. I think it is a corker.
And if you're short some Summer reading, you know where to start...


Sue Bursztynski said...

Goodness, 100 books to choose from! And such a variety, all historical fiction.... Well, it does vary. There's the literary and the bodice ripper, the whodunnit with a mediaeval monk or Ricardian secret agent as the sleuth, the military fiction and the fictional bio of a famous person, all under the heading of historical fiction.

The last time I was judging anything, there were fifty entries, all under the heading of "fantasy and SF - children's". They varied from a dragon in ancient China to a boy in the present time being hounded by any gadget that is on the Internet, even photocopiers and fridges! There was a story set inside the world of a computer game and another set in a museum, and another about a mapmakíng voyage in a fantasy world, even some "choose your own adventures"! How do you choose from those sub-genres? Fortunately, the winner stood out from them all. It glowed. There were some very good books, but that one was unquestionably the best. We argued a little about the short list, but not much. Not for long.

Just out of interest - what do you do with all those books? I gave mine away to my school library.

The Laws Of Magic - Steampunk Rules!

Sue Purkiss said...

What a lovely task to have! Well - the reading: possibly not so much having to choose!