Which is your favourite in battle for East Anglian book prize?
- Credit: Archant © 2009
The battle in an East Anglian book competition is coming to the boil, with shortlisted writers showcasing their work next week. STEVEN RUSSELL asks the first winner of the New Angle Prize what it meant to him, and looks at this year’s contenders
Author and naturalist Mark Cocker was sitting in a garden in Australia when he learned he’d won the very first New Angle Prize for literature inspired by East Anglia. The fledgling award obviously didn’t have the momentum of more-established competitions, but it was still a slightly nerve-wracking moment as the news filtered through from the awards ceremony in Suffolk. “I was on the internet, hunting to see if I’d won,” he admits. “Any prize-winning process is important.”
His book Crow Country had been shortlisted the previous year for The Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, offering the largest non-fiction bonus in the UK. Getting so close was an important psychological boost, he says, though a very stressful endeavour. “It was 20-grand at the time” – the potential spoils for the victor – “and it ‘wasted’ a lot of time for me…”
Both accolades were “extremely significant”, though, and welcomed.
“What literary prizes do is give you that little bit more attention; they give you that little bit more self-worth in a desperately difficult profession.
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“I know we’re all ‘volunteers’” – authors have, after all, chosen that way of life – “but being a writer is bloody hard work and for very little reward. So I think these ‘free gifts’ are great – and as Fast Eddie said in The Color of Money, ‘Money won is 10 times as sweet as money earned.’ Getting that two-grand felt as great as getting a £20,000 advance.”
Such signs that people rate what you’ve done are indeed to be relished.
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“Sadly, we live in a world where literary prizes are everything. I’ve just read a book called The Poor Had No Lawyers. It’s about who owns land in Scotland. It is an utterly brilliant book. The guy (Andy Wightman) deserves to be knighted for writing it, but will never win a literary prize.”
In fact, Mark laments, it’s hard for anyone who’s not a fiction writer to make the headlines these days. With most literary competitions, “it’s always bloody novelists” they’re aimed at.
The New Angle Prize is different. Unlike many award schemes – which have a specific focus, such as novels – it has no prejudices. All types of writing – stories, biography, reflective essays and more – are valued equally. The only stipulation is that they must have “East Anglia” running through them like lettering in a stick of rock.
After that, it comes down simply to who’s the best.
“This gives opportunities for writers in other genres – right across to the producers of the fantastic book about the flowers and plants of Suffolk. (A Flora of Suffolk, by Martin Sanford and Richard Fisk, was shortlisted in 2011.) It celebrates and focuses our attention on all the wonderful writing that lies outside literary fiction.”
Mark tuts. “All that buzz about the Orange Prize and whether it’s called The Women’s Prize for Fiction… for goodness’ sake! There are whole genres that get no attention whatsoever. So I think it’s” – New Angle – “a great thing.”
And, of course, fiction gets the same fair treatment. In fact, as a winner, Mark was invited to be a judge for the next New Angle competition… when top honours happened to go to a crime novel – Jim Kelly’s Death Watch.
It was in 2009 that Mark, who lives between Norwich and Beccles, triumphed. Crow Country examined how commonplace rooks and jackdaws were far from ordinary – the author having been inspired by the lines of crows that passed over his house on their way to roost.
He says we are increasingly seeing “place” as a narrative in itself, “as a way of framing our experience”. Initiatives such as the New Angle Prize are valuable in recognising its importance. “East Anglia needs an uplift. It has a kind of cultural deficit. It’s seen… not so much you guys, but ‘we Norfolk folk, we han’t got any culture’. I think that anything that highlights East Anglia’s cultural riches is a very positive thing. We’ve underestimated landscape and place. We’ve allowed farmers and people who draw money from the common agricultural policy to basically dominate the way in which landscape functions in our society.”
How do you know “East Anglian literature” when you see it, and how hard is it to sift the diverse offerings of the New Angle entries?
“It is very difficult to judge. How do you compare A Flora of Suffolk with Ronnie Blythe’s wonderful book Aftermath? Their aspirations, their intentions, are so fundamentally different. But at the same time you’re balancing a whole series of criteria. There are many, many ways in which you can come to a meaningful decision about a book. I didn’t see it as beyond the bounds of possibility to make qualitative judgments that involve different genres. Even when you’re talking about a single genre, the politics of these panels is so complex, you don’t necessarily choose ‘the best book’; you choose the book that all agree is ‘allowed’ to win it. In other words, people’s prejudices, as they did in our case, came into play to block books which I think in some ways were as worthy winners.
“So the whole process of choice (that) involves a panel is a deeply subjective and ‘flawed’ process in itself. But I don’t see that the fact you have multiple genres as, really, any more a significant problem. It’s a bit like Churchill saying ‘Democracy’s a terrible system; it’s just that we can’t come up with a better one.’ I think much is the same with literary prizes.
“I’ve judged a poetry prize with Andrew Motion. It’s great fun. You don’t really know how you get through the alchemical process of exchange, but you look at the choice you made and think ‘Yeah, that’s a decent poem… though I maybe didn’t choose it myself…’”
Mark says that entries for the 2011 New Angle Prize, when he was one of the three judges, amounted to “a very mixed bag of contenders”. But among them were certainly works to celebrate.
“There was a nice one – a biography of a poacher. The author had done an extremely good job on her first biography. The virtue of the prize was it gave you the opportunity to give just a little more attention to a book of genuine merit but not necessarily a prize-winning work.
“The shortlist we came up with included Blake Morrison, who was a clear, for me, candidate to win the prize” – with his creepy and claustrophobic The Last Weekend – “and another strong one was a novel called The Wake (by Jeremy Page).
“I don’t think it is difficult to weed out the serious pieces of writing. The difficult task is in finding unanimity across three judges on how one calculates the relative merit of a novel as opposed to – in Ronnie Blythe’s case; our runner-up – a series of essays and non-fiction reflections.”
The 2013 New Angle Prize holds its Shortlist Showcase on Wednesday, June 26, at 7pm. It’s at the Ipswich Institute Reading Room, 15 Tavern Street, Ipswich. The six authors will read from their works and discuss the qualities of the region that inspired them. Tickets cost £7.50 and are available from the Ipswich Institute: 01473 253992 and firstname.lastname@example.org
The shortlisted books for the New Angle Prize, along with the judges’ early comments, are:
At the Yeoman’s House by Ronald Blythe (Enitharmon): The story of Bottengoms Farm, (at Wormingford, near Colchester) which came into the author’s possession more than 30 years ago, after the death of the artist John Nash. Blythe’s immaculate prose creates a perfect picture of place, hidden like a jewel in the East Anglian landscape.
James Dodds, Tide Lines by Ian Collins (Jardine Press): A sumptuous book which traces the life and art of James Dodds on his voyage from boat builder to one of East Anglia’s most celebrated artists. This rich maritime story is told in Collins’s excellent text and in a remarkable collection of pictures, prints, and photographs.
22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson (Penguin): The heart-breaking story of a Polish family torn apart by the Second World War reunited in 1946 in Ipswich. Amanda Hodgkinson’s novel gives us a convincing picture of post-war life and an intimate insight into the minds of three people trying to build a new future, while traumatized by the past.
This Luminous Coast by Jules Pretty (Full Circle Editions): Jules Pretty turns a 400-mile walk from the Dartford Bridge to Hunstanton into a combination of the close observation of nature and the examination of wider themes, including the transitory nature of the East Anglian coast and the relationship between landscape and history.
The Last Hunters: The Crab Fishermen of Cromer by Candy Whittome & David Morris (Full Circle Editions): The crabmen – and women – of Cromer describe the vanishing world of one of the last fishing communities in Britain. Candy Whittome’s sensitive editing preserves the essence of lives spent at sea, and often in mortal danger. David Morris provides stunning black and white images.
Dog Days by Elspeth Barker (Black Dog): A rich literary anthology of reviews and essays demonstrating an extraordinary scope and vitality, and a fierce independence of mind. Elspeth Barker’s dispatches from the depths of the Norfolk countryside are a welcome antidote to more romantic views of life in East Anglia.