Walter Scott Prize shortlist 2012: who should win?
About the Walter Scott Prize
The Walter Scott Prize, I feel, is still finding its feet as a literary prize.
Founded in 2009, it has certain singularities. It is tied closely to the Borders Book Festival (disambiguation: this is the Borders area of Scotland, nothing whatever to do with Borders the defunct international booksellers). This, in turn, is closely linked with the restoration of Abbotsford House, Scott’s hugely influential castle-home. Both are linked with the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, patrons of the prize, and a family of staggering lineage, history and wealth. The current heir to the Dukedom is one – well – Walter Scott, though one would hardly address him as that: he is the Earl of Dalkeith (formerly Lord Eskdaill, who at the age of 12 was Page of Honour to Queen Elizabeth II).
All of this makes it somewhat different from other literary prizes. Is there another that has such a pin-point geographical home, such impeccable patrons, or such a dynastic interest?
How these singularities affect the prize itself is not readily apparent. So far it would seem, though, that (1) the judges will be chosen from Scots (2) the shortlist will be chosen from ‘literary historical novels’ (what this series of articles has been trying to define) (3) eligibility will be – perhaps increasingly – international (the prize initially was for books first published in the UK or Ireland; now it includes commonwealth too. I am unclear how nationality affects eligibility).
So far so good, and historical fiction has long missed its own dedicated prize. However there is the problem that a prize shaped in this way is derivative. Most books on the shortlists have already been up for or won other literary prizes. The £25,000 in one sense is only emphasizing their historicalness; their quality has already been established elsewhere.
With that in mind I have suggested very tentatively that the organisers might consider another prize with a similar theme. Perhaps an Ivanhoe prize for outstanding commercial historical fiction? Or a Rob Roy prize for outstanding historical adventure? Or a Waverley Prize for historical romance? Or a Last Minstrel prize for history-inspired verse? I have no objection (whatever) to the WSP in its current form, but it only presents one facet of the great Sir Walter’s achievement.
And… who should win (or lose)?
I have considered how to judge this over the last weeks, and it occurs to me that if I choose six novels to lose, I will be right in 5 out 6 of my choices – so here are some reasons why each novel should lose the 2012 Walter Scott Prize…
On Canaan’s Side will lose because…
Discounting the strengths of On Canaan’s Side, is there not something somewhat mawkish about Misery Lit? While the Irish certainly have plenty to complain about, you could argue that the 20th Century wasn’t a walk in the park for many nations. In the ‘victim’ stakes, you’re always going to be up against the Jews, the Russians, the Chinese etc etc – so the ‘Paean of Loss’ could look self-indlugent. Again, is there not something unsound about presenting a modern (imaginary) suicide as a tragic culmination of historic abuse?
Pure will lose because…
I recently handed this book to one of my brothers, and he (apologetically) handed it back after a couple of tries to read it. Too literary. He just couldn’t work out a way into it. I notice that the book failed to get a US publisher till it won the Costa – it’s only just released there, a paperback original, reviewed on May 30th in the Washington Post. This despite the US/Paris love affair. So this book won’t win because it is decidedly obscure. And it has none of the ‘lobbies’ that support the other books.
The Stranger’s Child will lose because…
Alan Hollinghurst has things that work for him. He is a literary insider (ex TLS deputy editor). He is gay (not just a lobby, there is a dedicated readership of ‘literary gay’). He is writing a version of the English Country House novel. Strangely all these can also work against him – and actually, I think, they did do with this novel and (for example) the Booker judges. They could also work against him with the WSP. Do we really want an un-historic novel to win this prize? Wouldn’t that be too arch, too ironic?
The Half Blood Blues will lose because…
Again, Esi Edugyan may be ultimately undermined by the lobbies that are associated with her. There’s the race thing. There’s the half-blood thing. There’s the whole Blues versus the Nazis thing. And there’s the only-female-author-on-the-shortlist thing, too. Ultimately I think this novel will win or lose depending on how the judges feel about the voice. Literary ventriloquism is always tricky. It inevitably contains a slice of pastiche, and I think that is difficult when it is so very central to the point of the book. You just have to have one judge who isn’t hearing it right, and you’re in trouble.
The Quality of Mercy will lose because…
I always thought this one an outsider because it is a very serious subject, and because it’s a literary sequel. Next year’s judges will, I am certain, feel a pressure to include Bring Up the Bodies on the shortlist, but I think there will be an equal and opposite pressure to exclude it from the prize. There is something… not quite literary about literary sequels. That said, I also think Unsworth is the sort of author that you love because of the body of his work, not any one book. Of course he died this week (sad, but also wonderful: a novelist at the height of his powers still, after a lifetime’s recognition) – but I doubt that will change anything.
The Sisters Brothers… should win…
Ok, I promised I would pin my colours to the mast. This is not in any way to pretend that my view matters one iota compared with that of the real judges. Or that anyone should listen to what I am saying. But this book is the one I would like to win because it is not only very accomplished (read our assessments here), it also dares to be genre (in that mythical, anachronistic land that is Western), and because it has plot and pace at its heart. These are not the only things to admire, but they are lacking elsewhere on this shortlist – and they would have mattered to Sir Walter Scott. (Other things in the book might have mattered to him more, and more negatively, but that’s a separate issue!)