Rescuing writers from the "mid-list"

Fiction Uncovered gives eight novelists the recognition they deserve.

For reasons not entirely clear to me the act of reading novels had been chiselled down to two mutually exclusive disciplines. The first was digesting great and difficult works of the past as an act of compulsion; I wanted to know what secrets they might reveal. The second was a brief and largely unpleasant exposure to popular fiction – all short sentences, bad dialogue and cheap thrills. But reading the novels named as winners of the Fiction Uncovered literary award led me down a path of fresh and unexpected pleasures. I found I could have my cake and eat it too.

A precarious business, being a novelist of certain type. There are writers out there who have achieved substantial critical success and enjoy a career many others would envy, yet have somehow evaded the wider public consciousness. The industry whispers it as “mid-list”, a term that refers not to genre, subject or form, but to a habitat where their achievements do not even make them particularly famous in the literary world, let alone in mainstream cultural life. This is the landscape of Fiction Uncovered, which nominates eight books for the greater recognition they deserve.

The award is in its second year and with a panel of judges chaired by John Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of Modern English Literature at UCL, has again selected titles that not only sing of their own merits, but serve as reminders – as they did to me – of the value of reading intelligent artful books for pleasure.

Genre publishers can build intimate and lucrative relationships with fans by reaching out to long-standing communities of loyal readers. That’s not so easy with literary or “quality” fiction – the readers of which are an altogether a more disparate bunch. The decline of bookshops also means there is a need to reconnect those in search of this kind of experience with a range of fresh titles. You could say the award is a highfalutin' book club, as the writer of Lucky Bunny, one of the winners, explains. “The tough thing is to attract and keep readers,” says Jill Dawson. “I don’t obsess about sales but I do obsess over readers. It can be hard to get noticed and a project such as this is very much needed. It can introduce books about which people may have misconceptions or preconceptions and they might be pleasantly surprised.”

Lucky Bunny is one such pleasant surprise. It is the story of a criminally inclined Queenie Dove, who narrates her own rises and falls through the Blitz and postwar London. This could seem like over-familiar territory, but Dawson skillfully avoids the cockney tropes that might have dragged it down. The young Queenie is the victim, and cause, of a series of workaday tragedies and the energy of her tale lies in its dynamic shifts from exhilarated escapade to domestic horror.

“The introduction of Mum’s name into the air feels wobbly, like the flame on a birthday candle. I daren’t even answer, in case my breath blows it out.”

Queenie’s voice feels authentic but also sparkles with burnished rhetoric and although the convincing historical scaffolding is impressive, Dawson has achieved something more than an engaging period piece. Queenie has a brain and heart through which we can explore profound questions about how environment, family and circumstance can shape the psychology – and therefore destiny – of an individual.

My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly covers a similar historical period as Lucky Bunny but follows the lives of three generations of middle-class women who find, in their own distinct ways, a second version of love. Unlike the eviscerating candour of its fellow winner this is gentler in tone, though that does not mean it sacrifices any emotional honesty. It has a mesmeric quality as each character is swept along and every drama, every “event”, is not a point of punctuation but a ripple, merely following the last and preceding the next.

Another outstanding winner is Two Cows And A Vanful Of Smoke by Peter Benson, a well established novelist who knows the value of Fiction Uncovered to his work and the industry. “One of the great things about it is that it’s not a competition – it’s a celebration,” says Benson. “The literary world is no different to any other - the news tends to be dominated by money, scandal, personal spats and hype - and sometimes it’s easy to forget what lies at the heart of what we do. Good books. Fiction Uncovered recognises this.”

Two Cows mixes Somerset drifters, corrupt police and stolen cannabis, but the real magic – literally – of the book is in its evocation of a mystical English countryside. As Elliot tries to extricate himself from the tangle of stupid friends, gangsters and angry farmers, the land itself speaks on every page. Elliot (learning from his domestic mystical mum) reads messages in the flights of buzzards and the eyes of forest animals while the trees warn of danger. The prose twists and rolls like a vine creeping over a medieval brick wall.

“I was angry now, angry and fierce, like a fish with a hook in its eye. A bush on fire. The bird with a vole in its beak … I crossed roads without looking, barged past old women with shopping trolleys, kicked at stones I saw I the gutter. Panic, fear, trouble – they’d all gone.”

This Is Life by Dan Rhodes and The Light Of Amsterdam by David Park both send an ensemble in search of some new purpose in the panorama of a European city. This is Life flirts with magical realism in Paris and walks on a precarious ridge of whimsy – that it manages to avoid the dangers of this high-wire act shows the author’s skill. The characters skip around a world where love at first sight is as much part of their daily routine as the morning espresso. It is a butterfly of a book and one that desperately wants to be, and probably should be, a film.

The Light Of Amsterdam is thicket-dense with the interior workings of characters on the brink of discovery and/or breakdown. The names of the three main travellers from Belfast to the Dutch city, Alan, Karen and Marion, sound like old testament siblings, tormented by fate and tested by God. It is three worlds of intense solipsism, though the occasionally overbearing narration is tempered with empathy for the hurt that the little things in life can inflict and for how those little things, if left unattended, can grow in silence and darkness into monsters. No matter how frustrating Karen’s psychological pecking seems, the news her daughter reveals in Amsterdam is a moment that lingers in the memory. Both titles survive and thrive through the episodic switch from one character to another, which prevents This Is Life from flying away in the breeze and The Light Amsterdam from sinking into quicksand.

Another demonstration of the range of the award is the two titles which come closest to that of genre writing. Hit And Run by Doug Johnstone blends a modern crime thriller set in Edinburgh with a touch of Dostoyevsky, as a reporter falls further and further into a personal Hades of his own making. It’s a book of breakneck pace, even if the hardboiled dialogue sometimes jars with its modern setting. Completely different, though sharing their more specialised status, is Susanna Jones’s When Nights Were Cold. Also a thriller of a kind, it plays with a survivor's unreliable memory of an Edwardian mountaineering expedition that went horribly wrong. The “coldness”, in its many forms, is superbly evoked by Jones and she plays on familiar notions of Suffragettes and imperial adventurers to create an unsettling saga.

Finally, the ambition – and success – of Fiction Uncovered is best illustrated by the title that, at first sight, least deserves to be on the winner’s list. Crushed Mexican Spiders by Tibor Fischer is a tiny volume of only two short stories. Crushed Mexican Spiders itself is a decent mix of Kafka and Lovecraft in modern Brixton in which the villain is the city of London itself, but the other story, Possibly Forty Ships, is quite magnificent.

A man (it’s up the reader to guess who) under threat of torture tells his eyewitness account the Trojan War and his “truth” about Achilles, Odysseus and Helen. Not only does it crackle with playful classical allusions, but its humour – “They marry Menelaus off to a very minor princess so ugly she has to sneak up on a fig tree to pick the fruit” – contains barbs of cynical, word weary wisdom that are both provocative and strangely moving. It has more depth and breadth than many novels 40 times its size. It is also the kind of unexpected thrill that fulfils the promise of this particular award. For me, this really was fiction, uncovered.

Fiction Uncovered FM will run from Foyles Charing Cross Road, London, from 20 – 23 June 2012. The pop-up radio station will be dedicated to celebrating fiction. A full list of the 2012 winners can be found here.

@geochesterton

The eight nominated authors for Fiction Uncovered 2012 (Photo: Alicia Canter)

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses