Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Glittering Prizes

I have decided to enter for one of the awards that New Writing North give out each year to support writers’ work (Northern Writers’ Awards). They are asking for up to 5,000 words and a synopsis of the contemplated whole, and the deadline for submissions is 17th January next year. This will give me a target to aim at, and so help me in getting my new (second) novel properly under way. I have already written a synopsis, though it needs a fair bit of tightening and my ideas do, of course, change all the time as the work develops. 5,000 words will be about right for the opening two chapters. The first one is pretty much written and the second well in progress, so I hope to have something I am satisfied with before the deadline.

But what sort of writing are the organisers looking for? Another New Writing North award, now opened for entries, is the Gordon Burn Prize. I read through the blurb for this to see if I might fruitfully enter my first novel; having done so I decided definitely against it. Mine is an historical book, but does it “dare to enter history and interrogate the past” as we are told the prize judges expect? I certainly hope my writing transports readers’ minds into my version of the past, but I am not sure how one sets out to “interrogate” an inanimate concept. A recent article in the Sunday Times Culture section cited this word as a meaningless cliché routinely used by curators of art exhibitions.

And there is a contradiction apparent in the Gordon Burn prize specification. It calls for “Literature which challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading.” Beyond the further dose of art-curatorial speak evident here, this requirement strikes me as actually prescribing a rigid formula for entrants to adopt, even though it says elsewhere that they want to attract “intrepid” authors. Surely originality does not consist of everyone trying to write like Gordon Burn, even if the prize does carry his name? And presumably a writer will have failed, by the standards set, if readers of a particular work do know what it is they are reading? I hope that readers of any good writing know exactly what it is, and recognise the uniqueness that comes from it being the vision of a single human being, rather than it being fashioned to fit a formula.

I knew very well what I was watching, for instance, when I attended the production of Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd” at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds back in October. It was a brilliant staging of a brilliant narrative, which advances a compelling reason for Todd to become the monster that he does. Though nominally set more recently in this production, the piece oozes a sense of the Victorian London wherein the tale originates. This is the quality of past evocation that I would aspire to in my own work, and I do hope it could not be termed an “interrogation”. Maybe the judges of the Northern Writers’ Awards are freer to look for genuine originality.

So that is my blog for December. I daresay that I have now chucked away any chance of getting an award from New Writing North. Merry Christmas everybody!