Saturday 29 September 2018

Goldsmiths Prize / Will Eaves: Murmur / publicity

Will Eaves: he’s a writer (of novels, poems, other things: we live in genre-fluid times), a serious one (this is a life commitment) and also a very funny one (comedy is more inclusive than the other thing) and an angry one (‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’? – I can see what the man was getting at, but about many things it is simply too late to wait for the recollection stage), and from his writing he doesn’t make an inch of the miles of money needed to ‘make a living’ and he’s on this year’s shortlist for the Goldsmiths Prize (full list here) and about the latter, to put it mildly, I’m pleased.

Pleased, despite the reductionism of lit prizes, which take their form from what is increasingly (and depressingly) the only show in town, capitalist competition, winner takes all. But we work from where we are, which is not where we used to be (say, a century ago, when so-so poetry collections sold in their thousands and writers were paid many thousands of £££ by magazines for a single short story). Reading being no longer central to the culture, publishers are a little desperate for publicity for their books, to get them known to more than friends and family, and the prize culture has become embedded.

Some prizes are more equal than others. There was a twitter flurry this week following the announcement that the Women’s Fiction Prize (sponsored by Deloitte, Baileys and NatWest) had decided to charge publishers ‘a small fee of £1000 for the 16 longlisted entries, in addition to the existing fee of £5000 – which remains unchanged – for each of the six novels shortlisted’. The Costa Book Awards charge publishers £5000 for each book chosen as a category winner (as well as requiring at least 50 free copies), plus another £6000 for the overall winner. The Dylan Thomas Prize and the Man Booker Prize also charge publishers of shortlisted books several thousand £££ for non-transparent reasons such as ‘contributions towards publicity costs’. (For comparison, total set-up cost for CBe in 2007: just over £2000.) A number of the smaller presses are thereby excluded from these competitions (and even if they did enter books that were shortlisted, would lose money, because sales income would not meet costs).

The Goldsmiths, thank god, is one of the prizes that are free to enter. As is the RoC Prize (whose prize money is spilt between authors and publishers) and the Jhalak Prize (and, on the poetry subcontinent, the Forward Prizes and the T. S. Eliot Prize). It’s maybe worth noting that the above fiction prizes were established in response to the perceived exclusivity of the longer-established prizes.

A slightly different (but related) matter: Is all publicity good publicity? For some readers, publicity over a certain pitch can be off-putting (to the extent that I can feel, if a book has already got that many readers, it doesn’t need me). In recent months I’ve read at least three much-praised novels – of the kind whose covers punctuate my twitter feed, and which usually get at least as far as a couple of shortlists – and found myself (a) wondering what the fuss was about; (b) suspecting that the high praise had set up expectations that got in the way of my appreciating them; and (c) acknowledging that if it hadn’t been for the praise/publicity, I might never have started reading them anyway. Will Eaves’s Goldsmiths-shortlisted book, Murmur, has received some high praise: ‘has achieved one of the pinnacles of novelistic endeavour’; ‘as bracingly intelligent as it is brave’; ‘a poignant meditation on the irrepressible complexity of human nature and sexuality’; ‘a weaving, witty text packed with insight about the future’; ‘has achieved the holy grail of modern prose’ – you get the picture. There will certainly be some readers who will wonder what the fuss is about, and who may even dislike the book at least in part because expectations have been set up and then not met. Liking the book is not compulsory, but I really want Will Eaves to be able to afford some jam for his toast in the mornings: buy here. If, after buying the book from the CBe website, you don’t like it, give it to a charity shop and write me a letter (address on the imprint page) explaining why and I’ll refund the purchase price.

[This post has also been sent as a newsletter: there are overlaps, but different people tune in to different places.]

Friday 21 September 2018

Night thoughts

This book was a charity-shop buy last week. I’d heard of the author but had read nothing by him before. The train on the jacket looks Polish, said a friend. Toby Judt, the back flap informs me, ‘was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, in addition to being the Director of the Remarque Institute, which is dedicated to the study of Europe and which he founded in 1995’.

First, the form of the book. Judt was visited by a ‘motor neuron disorder’ (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The body shuts down, bit by bit. Not the mind. Wedged into bed each night – utterly passive, unable even to scratch – and insomniac, he let his mind scroll through his life until ‘I have chanced upon events, people, or narratives that I can employ to divert my mind from the body in which it is encased’. In the morning, with the help of an assistant, the night’s work is transcribed into the matter – essays? feuilletons? – this book consists of. ‘I don’t know what sort of a genre this is.’

Content. Food, cars, Green Line buses. Class, work, migration, education, sex, ‘identity’. ‘I am struck by the man I never became.’

Declaration of interest: Judt was born (east London, working class) in 1948, I was born (Leeds, middle class) in 1951. I know uncomfortably well many of the foods and cars and confusions he talks about. He was a volunteer worker on a certain small kibbutz in Israel in 1967, I was a volunteer worker on the same kibbutz in 1969.

The Memory Chalet is a short book. The nights were finite: Judt died in 2010, aged 62. There are many good, loving memories, and Judt praises Clement Attlee, the Labour prime minister 1945–51 ‘who presided over the greatest age of reform in modern British history’: ‘Attlee was an exemplary representative of the great age of middle-class Edwardian reformers: morally serious and a trifle austere. Who among our present leaders could make such a claim – or even understand it?’ Judt went to a state school that got him into Cambridge, where the teaching was good. ‘As in so many other respects, I think our generation was fortunate: we got the best of both worlds. Promoted on merit into a class and culture that were on their way out, we experienced Oxbridge just before the fall – for which I confess that my own generation, since risen to power and office, is largely responsible.’

That last bit is the killer. How has our generation – or at least the white male slice of it, the luckiest and most privileged cohort in Western history – managed to so fuck things up that here we are now with Trump and Brexit?

Writing – more accurately, thinking, and dying – in 2009, Judt saw it coming: ‘We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers, and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalization itself – the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies – will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.’ And yet for all his intelligence and compassion and curiosity (already fluent in several European languages, he learned Czech in his forties) . . . As a historian, Judt almost certainly understood better than most of us how good can so quickly turn bad.