April 06, 2014

Thoughts on the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

Sir Walter Scott by Landseer
“ … audacity and innovation …” This phrase jumped out at me when reading this article on the shortlist of this year’s candidates for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. I agree to some extent that audacity can help a book, although it can hinder it too if the personal or political opinions of the author gets in the way of the reading and it becomes preachy.

But why must books always be innovative these days? And why do some of these authors’ names pop up again and again in these shortlists? Is this the fault of the publishers for not putting their other authors forward? Does it involve greasing palms? So many questions - and this article by one of the judges of the 2013 Walter Scott Prize gives some interesting answers:

...Here’s how the prize works:
Publishers submit up to three titles to the prize organisers. This is the hopeful historical novel’s first hurdle and it might get no further. The publisher might be asleep. Or, in some cases, too mean to pay the promotion fee should the book be shortlisted. (How many authors, I wonder, anxiously wait for shortlists to be announced, unaware that their publisher never even submitted their novel?)
The book’s next task is to pass under the eyes of an army of discerning volunteer “sifters”, who trawl through the titles and reduce the number down to a manageable longlist. At this point, the judges have a final chance to nudge sleepy publishers awake, and call in any books they feel have been missed. ...
Of course Sir Walter Scott was innovative in his own way, bringing historical fiction to the masses and he did become a super-celebrity of his time, but he is first and foremost remembered as a storyteller whose work appealed to a wide audience and so it would be nice to see which popular fiction titles were considered for this award. A publication of the longlist could be a useful guide for fans of historical fiction to see which novels did not make the cut.

As an avid reader and reviewer of this genre, I have lost count of the number of recent books that tried to dazzle me with their literary gymnastics in some effort to be original, audacious or innovative. There is one particular example written by Mr X, a teacher of creative writing and well-known historical novelist who fictionalised a famous event and wrote it in a style that drove me crazy. He wrote the flash-back and flash-forward chapters in ever-decreasing circles in such a way that finally the whole thing disappeared up its you-know-where like the Oozlum Bird. 

I already knew the outcome of this event - every person on this planet with even a modicum of historical knowledge knows what happened - so of course there weren’t going to be any surprises, and clearly he was using his novel more as a vehicle to demonstrate some kind of intellectual superiority rather than tell the story honestly using the viewpoints of his characters. Sorry Mr X, even if not all of your work has been written in this style, ultimately your literary arrogance left me so disillusioned that I will not read another one of your books.

I sincerely hope that whichever novel succeeds this year, it wins mainly for its absorbing story and a use of the English language that can stand the test of time, that it does not win because of some amalgamation of current political correctness and trendy stylistics.

Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott has recently had a makeover. On my last visit a couple of years ago, the famous library had been removed but should now be back in situ and anyone lucky enough to attend the Borders Book Festival this summer or with a passion for historical novels must at least once make the pilgrimage to Abbotsford and experience the atmosphere.

The magnificent library of Sir Walter Scott, Abbotsford

No comments: