The Warwick Prize for Writing

So, the first Warwick Prize for Writing longlist is out:

Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi (Virago)
The Tiger That Isn’t, by Michael Blastland & Andrew Dilnot (Profile Books)
Torques: Drafts 58-76, by Rachel Blau Duplessis (Salt Publishing)
Glister, by John Burnside (Jonathan Cape)
Planet of Slums, by Mike Davies (Verso)
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi?, by Francisco Goldman (Atlantic Books)
Someone Else, by John Hughes (Giramondo Publishing Company)
Reinventing the Sacred, by Stuart A Kauffman (Perseus)
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein (Penguin)
The Burning, by Thomas Legendre (Abacus)
Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion and the Politics of Human Origins, by David Livingston (Johns Hopkins University Press)
The Wild Places, by Robert Macfarlane (Granta Books)
The Meaning of the 21st Century, by James Martin (Eden Project Books)
Brasyl, by Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
Netherland , by Joseph O’Neill (4th Estate)
The Rest Is Noise, by Alex Ross (4th Estate)
The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translator: Anne McLean) (Bloomsbury)
Montano’s Malady, by Enrique Vila-Matas (translator: Jonathan Dunne) (New Directions)
Portrait with Keys, by Ivan Vladislavic (Portobello Books)
The Trader, the Owner, the Slave, by James Walvin (Jonathan Cape)

As you may be able to tell from the above list, it’s a bit of an oddity, this one. The process that generated it is pretty quirky, to start with: it’s a biennial award with a 30-month eligibility period; nominations come originally from university staff; the longlist can include a maximum of 15 titles, except that each of the five judges can add one directly, for the total of 20 you see above.

It’s certainly high-minded enough: the website says that “The Warwick Prize for Writing is an international cross-disciplinary award which will be given biennially for an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language, in any genre or form, on a theme which will change with every award”, and declares with teleological certainty that “The winning submission will represent an intellectual, scientific and/or imaginative advance and be written with an energy and clarity that makes it accessible and attractive to a wide audience”.

The prize also has a substantial fund behind it — the winner gets £50,000 — not to mention a well-qualified judging panel. On some level, it is undoubtedly a good and welcome thing. But the more I look at that list, with its seven fiction titles, twelve non-fiction titles, and one poetry title, the more sceptical I am about the meaningfulness of choosing a winner.

Bear in mind that it’s a list that includes books I have enjoyed, books I want to read, and books I’ve never heard of but which look interesting, which is about all you can ask of a longlist. My reservation is that measuring fiction, non-fiction and poetry against each other always strikes me as a bit pointless when the Whitbread/Costa does it, and it strikes me as a bit pointless here. This is not to say that such comparisons can’t be illuminating: I’m sure that reading Glister, Portrait with Keys and Planet of Slums together with an eye to how they treat the idea of the city could be fascinating, for instance. Assuming that you found all three to be good, however, I’m baffled as to how you could declare one to be better than the others in ways that rise above the simple subjective fact of enjoying one more than another. Put another way, I can’t think of any sensible evaluative way to compare, say, Brasyl and The Rest is Noise: their goals, reference points, interests, and techniques seem to be so divergent as to make such comparison meaningless.

The publicity for the Warwick prize states that it “is set to redefine traditional forms of writing”; I take this to be a reference to the fact that there are obviously books which blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, and that it makes more sense — is more honest? — to treat types of writing as a continuum rather than a series of categories. This is true as far as it goes, but the problem is that, as with Larus Gulls, the existence of border cases doesn’t mean that distinct, incompatible categories don’t exist.

Perhaps the stated theme for this iteration of the award — “complexity“, although to be honest I’m pretty sure I could argue for just about anything under that definition of the term — is intended to help. But certainly for the ones I’ve sampled, the most useful answer to the question, “how do these books tackle or embody complexity?” is “very differently”; better and worse don’t really come into it. But it’s a prize, so better and worse have to come into it, and there has to be a winner. Part of me thinks that to be truly radical, they should forego picking a winner entirely, and just divide up the prize money between the works they’ve considered worthy of a longlisting.

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