Monday, November 12, 2012

Rose Tremain: The art of not winning literary prizes

'Over a lifetime in writing, I've had numerous opportunities to perfect the art of not winning'

Rose Tremain
Smiling through … Rose Tremain at the Whitbread Book of the Year Awards, 1999. Photograph: Frank Baron for the Guardian

On Wednesday evening, my new novel, Merivel: A Man of His Time failed to win the handsome Wellcome Trust book prize, open to both fiction and non-fiction, and founded to celebrate "medicine in literature". Merivel tells the story of a roguish 17th-century doctor's attempts to anatomise his own life.
The prize went to Thomas Wright for his historical biography of William Harvey, Circulation.

Over a lifetime in writing, I've had numerous opportunities to perfect the art of not winning. I've been shortlisted for but not won the Man Booker prize, the Whitbread book of the year, the Costa novel prize, the Orange prize (won at the second attempt in 2007) the Frank O'Connor short story award, the Impac award, the Galaxy "Book of the Year" award and the Radio 3 short story award. These ubiquitous non-wins meant that, last night, my facial muscles were so well practised in the "non-winners smile" that it could be summoned in a nanosecond.
My mind, too, has become nicely obedient to correct "non-winning thought", which is a slightly more difficult and complex thing. I could compare it to a military operation in which defeat appears to loom, but where the wise general decides to retreat, in order to protect the forces that remain. Those remaining forces are the book itself. It's still there, after all. It hasn't even suffered the wounding that can sometimes be inflicted by critics. It has just "not won". It has almost won, but not quite. It is evidently vain to see this as a catastrophe.

Some measure of depression, however, almost always creeps in. A "non-win" is of course a loss. My hero, Robert Merivel reflects "how astonishing it is that Man attempts any Thing of Significance … when part of him knows that if he fails, all his former contentment will be lost." I think that he, who dreams of presenting learned monographs at the Royal Society, would agree that being shortlisted for a major prize is a Thing of Significance, even if, we, the authors didn't precisely "attempt it" – our publishers attempted it, but it was the book that failed. And here arises the further difficulty to be surmounted by correct non-winning thought: the non-winner is inclined to feel guilty at letting the publishers down.

We feel it because we know how much they care about it, or at least about the enhanced sales that prize-winners trail in their wake. I was slightly amazed, for instance, at last year's Booker dinner, by how choked with dread were the Cape contingent at the idea of a non-win for Julian Barnes for The Sense of an Ending. I suspect that, cool and clever as he is, he would have coped better with this outcome than his publishing team, on whose behalf he might well have felt guilty. (He won, right? So he didn't have to endure this.) But author/publisher guilt is, in my view, strenuously to be fought. Although it is certainly self-imposed, having to suffer it doesn't seem fair or just.

Assume, then, that the non-winner can lay this aside, there is a yet third hurdle to be scrambled over. The most significant hurdle of all is finding the resources to defeat the almost inevitable 48-hour blues that follow the non-win, and the energy to return to the work in hand, unaffected by what's just happened to a different book. Every writer I know feels more or less contented or discontented with day-to-day life according to how his or her writing is going. Many, many things will affect this, but I know that the non-win of a prize can seem to infect the ongoing work with a badness-virus and lay the author low.
More at The Guardian.

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