Throughout March, The Ship has been with rights, looking for a second home abroad, and while I would be delighted to announce further deals, I can’t, as they haven’t happened. But I’ve managed to keep myself out of trouble for most of March by reading the Bailey’s Prize longlist. I’ve also made the decision to take my four year old daughter out of nursery next term, thereby losing the very little writing time I’d finally carved out. I went to my first book launch. And I wrote something, although I need to keep writing it if I’m going to work out exactly what it is.
Reading a prize longlist is illuminating. It brings you up against your prejudices. It demonstrates just how many brilliant books there are out there – not just the shortlisted ones, but the many that deserved a place on the shortlist and didn’t feature. 158 novelists waited for the longlist announcement knowing that their novels had a chance of being named, and I rather suspect that behind those 158 were a great many novels just as good. And then there were twenty, and then there were six. On June 7th, there’ll be one.
For a while that one will be The One, and lots of people will be thrilled. The winner will get £30,000, plus a £5,000 marketing contribution, and anything she writes in future will automatically be considered for future Bailey’s prize longlists, outside of the publisher’s quota. Some people will be pleased, some will be a bit cross, and then we’ll all move on. But that doesn’t stop writers dreaming of prizes, or readers being interested in them. And they’re important. Prizes are effective tools in a very crowded industry.
But to all those who hoped to be on the list and weren’t, I say this: The books that stay with you aren’t always the ones that win prizes. Go and look up the Booker/Man Booker winners since the prize was founded in 1968 and you’ll see what I mean. The thing is, it’s not the Olympics. There are no empirical, universally agreed criteria against which a novel can be judged. At the end of the day, this industry is Just Not Fair. None of it is fair. Writing a novel at all is a great achievement, and yet, unless you’re exceptionally lucky, or superlatively well-connected (and even if you are), you need rhinoceros skin, tunnel vision and the staying power of the Terminator to give your work any chance of being published. And when it’s published, that may not change. (I’ll get back to you on that in nine months).
It comes down to this: there are no guarantees. For any of us. And so the process has to be worthwhile. Whichever novel wins the Bailey’s prize will have one hundred and fifty seven novels behind it that were in with a chance. The winner gets an enormous leg up. But the other hundred and fifty seven (and however many more weren’t nominated) have just as much chance of being the novel that someone, somewhere, picks up and loves. That is the novelist’s greatest prize.
Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be sitting on a panel with Nathan Filer, Adele Parks and Tom Rob Smith, taking questions from aspiring novelists at Curtis Brown’s London Writers’ Fair. All three of these novelists have achieved a level of success I can only dream of, and I’m honoured (and not a little stunned) to have been invited to appear alongside them. I don’t suppose for a moment that any of them will look like a rhinoceros, or the Terminator, or that their tunnel vision goggles will be visible to the audience. But I’m looking forward to finding out. If you’re going to be there, please come and say hello. And if you’re not, then this is what I’m going to say. Don’t be devastated by rejections; put yourself in the way of them. Keep going, no matter how the Arnold Schwarzenegger of publication eludes you. And don’t be distracted. By prizes, or by anything else.