So the Bailey’s Prize short list was announced last night. In terms of accuracy I fared very badly – only two of my wish list appeared on the short list (Americanah and Burial Rites), although if I’d gone for prediction, I’d have had a better strike rate. (Honestly.) The long list was a great reading experience and obviously a shortlist cannot inspire the thrill of discovering something new in anyone who’s read the longlist.
But…but. So many of the longlisted books were joyful. Not chocolate boxy happy, but acknowledging that life has its joy as well as its pain. I’ll never forget Reno tearing powerfully over the salt flats on her motorbike, experiencing the thrill of speed and danger in The Flamethrowers. Or Rebecca, moving slowly and deliberately through the recalibration and reclamation of her life in Still Life with Breadcrumbs. The fun Margaret Atwood had with the Oryx and Crake trilogy; Elizabeth Gilbert and Eleanor Catton playing with Victorian narrative conventions; the affection for humanity in all its flawed and inadequate expressions in the novels of Elizabeth Strout and Suzanne Berne. And, of course, the uncompromising, unbearable beauty and pain of maternal love in Eleven Days. And I look at the shortlist, and I miss that joy.
First, the debuts: Eimear McBride’s A girl is a half-formed thing is the fairy story of this list in everything except the actual story, which is about as far from a fairy story as it’s possible to get. Published by Galley Beggar press after many, many rejections, the shortlisting is a real affirmation of the philosophy of Galley Beggar press’ founders. Wonderful, challenging writing beautifully published. Amen to that. The fact that the novel left me wanting to slit my wrists it testimony to its power. I know.
The Undertaking is the love story of two Nazi sympathizers, and the spare, dialogue-driven writing style leaves no space for commentary or opinion. These are left to the reader. This makes me uncomfortable, which is perhaps the point. And goodness it’s bleak. So bleak. If the measure of a good novel is how far it pulls you into the horrors human beings are prepared to inflict upon one another, then either of these titles could win. And Burial Rites, too – such a convincing evocation of time and place, the human relationships as hard and brutal as the landscape.
One of the benefits of the Bailey’s Prize for the authors – apart from the generous prize money – is the extra marketing budget their publishers commit to, should their submitted titles be shortlisted, and again if they win. I’m a sentimental first time author, and long for the sums in question (£30000 prize, plus £5000 publicity contribution from the publisher for shortlisted titles, and another £5000 for the winner) to go to a lesser known writer, to whom they would make a vast difference. But that isn’t, and shouldn’t be, part of the judging criteria.
And the big hitters: Americanah has its share of smiles – some of Adichie’s observations about racism in America are as funny as they are thought-provoking. Adichie has already won this prize for Half of a Yellow Sun, the film version of which is premiering today, and she doesn’t really need the win any more than Tartt or Lahiri (I know, I know, it’s about the words on the page, not the author’s existing status. I know. And to award a prize to the writer who ‘needs’ it most would be patronizing and make a mockery of the entire process. I know.) If the prize goes to a big hitter, I’d like it to be Americanah. It’s not just the fact that it’s more positive; I also found it a tighter novel, of more even quality, than either of its stablemates.
Publishing is an exciting, glorious industry, more exposed than most to strokes of luck and the blinding power of halo effect. Are we more grateful for our own lives, whatever our stresses, if we’re taken to a very dark place for a while? Would I appreciate my own book deal less if it had happened more quickly, or if time to write were easier to find? Certainly unremitting cheer is as wearing as unremitting misery. And all the readers who are committing to reading the shortlisted novels before the winner is announced on 4th June will read some excellent writing. But a good novel doesn’t have to be a sad one, or a bleak one; darkness and brutality don’t necessarily mean excellence, and I’d urge readers to revisit the long list, too.