Fiction Uncovered 2013 is no literary John Peel sessions

Do we need yet another self-serving literary prize list? The Fiction Uncovered 2013 list purports to give prominence to promising and innovative writers that have been overlooked elsewhere, but the many of the books it has selected are anything but, write

We’ve got literary lists and prizes for everything. Now we’ve got Fiction Uncovered 2013: a promotion for books which wouldn’t look out of place on other middle-brow prize lists, but didn’t make them. If there is room for another list, it’s one that wears its "un-" prefix unapologetically: an alternative list of brilliant books that would never be considered for the big prizes or summer reads round-ups. This isn’t it. But then, the Booker has at least pretended to get more interesting recently. Last year it flaunted Will Self’s Umbrella, before giving the prize to Hilary Mantel again. This year it put three debut novels on the long list, though Colm Toibin will win, because he’s due the prize. If the major prizes are notionally looking elsewhere, what happens to all the worthy, heart-felt, innocuous and uncharismatic books? The one about a west London couple who discussed pension plans on their first date, or the one where a woman writes an account of her parents’ relationship?

The Fiction Uncovered promotion is confused and euphemistic. The packaging would have us believe that it is giving us eight books by Britain’s finest writers, but is in fact promoting mid-list authors that the judges believe to have been unfairly overlooked, either critically or by prize committees. What is also apparent is that the judges want to award a writer for career achievement and previous, better books, but has to push his current book in the promotion. Does every author deserve recognition for taking part, for competence? The Fiction Uncovered list seems to perpetuate a cycle of deserving, whereby writers who have been praised in the past are seen to deserve praise even when their books aren’t up to scratch. This effectively keeps writers who might deserve "uncovering" covered. It makes you long for the sort of thing it isn’t: a kind of literary John Peel thing which genuinely does "uncover" promising and innovative writers. The only clear rule in the rubric of Fiction Uncovered is that debut writers aren’t eligible. Fair enough: first-timers traditionally generate goodwill, buzz, and an optimistic marketing budget. They are also likely to get passed over for review in favour of established authors. The better books on the list corroborate this, having been reviewed extensively and positively. So why do they need this promotion?

Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk, a book about a teenage farm girl in the early nineteenth century who learns to read from the King James Bible, is the best on the list. It has rightly been praised by pretty much every paper and magazine, more than one comparing Leyshon to Hardy. ("The best bits of Tess of the D’Urbervilles" was what one paper said – the best bits!) Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy and James Meek’s The Heart Broke In have also been highly praised. They were bound to be good, at least technically, because these authors have had the most practice. The Heart Broke In was even shortlisted for the Costa Prize last year: one of about three major prizes in the country. You’d be forgiven for wondering why, after that, it needs uncovering, and whether this list is doing anything that hasn’t been done elsewhere.

Nikita Lalwani’s The Village seems to be the only well-reviewed book which deserves further "uncovering", as it inverts a usual middle-brow prize contender: the Brit abroad moral travelogue. Ray, a BBC camerawoman with an Indian background, is making a documentary about an Indian open prison. As she records the inmates’ stories, her colleagues pressure her to emotionally exploit her subjects for dramatic viewing. Ray finds herself "fetishising" images of her own hand holding fennel seeds, affecting an Indian accent on English words, and ashamed of the way her film-maker’s visual sense patronises and exoticises her surroundings. It is a sophisticated antidote to the gawping narrative optimism displayed by most prize-friendly books about other continents.     

The other books, whose authors have been reviewed well in the past, are either unremarkable or inconsistent. Worryingly, this indicates that the list is there to comfort writers who haven’t fulfilled their promise. Isn’t this an insult to the better books on the list, to be included in what is effectively a consolation prize? It is hard not to admire Anthony Cartwright’s How I Killed Margaret Thatcher and Lucy Cadwell’s All The Beggars Riding as stories. The former is a publican’s retrospective of a childhood in the West Midlands under Thatcher. The latter is a woman’s investigation of her parents’ relationship – her father had another family – and her attempt to write her mother’s memoirs. They are nice books, carefully put together, but pedestrian. If their counterparts strangely didn’t appear on prize lists this year, they’ll no doubt always have a place in book clubs.

Amy Sackville’s Orkney, an allusive, mythic novel about a fruity old English Lit don who takes his ex-student bride to honeymoon on an Orkney island, is too imperfect to sit confidently on a prize list. The success of this sort of thing is down to style. At her best, Sackville is a fine pupil of John Banville: someone else who likes writing arch old dons on the shore. The rest of the time her writing is bargain-Banville: too dreamy and quaint, and at its worst slippery with unsayable alliteration (‘sit down safe within my fortifications in the forecourt’) and unfortunate wordplay ("even tinned custard, in her custody. . .") Yes, the narrator is intentionally, playfully verbose and says things like "argent" and "whence". He’d have also spent his life striking ugly sentences out of students’ essays. Sackville has a good eye, though, and will hopefully write something very good and innovative soon. This isn’t her at her best, though.

Niven Govinden’s Black Bread White Beer was literally uncovered by this promotion, and wouldn’t have been available in print otherwise. This is the prize’s most admirable gesture and its biggest mistake. Amal and Claud, two thirty-something professionals who live in Richmond and sing Blur in the car, have an early miscarriage which undoes their relationship. They pretend they are still pregnant to Claud’s parents in the country: routine provincial bigots who think all Eastern Europeans are prostitutes and have a go at making curry when their Indian in-laws visit.

This book raises an issue that isn’t discussed enough, but is often a fault of book-clubby novels. Realist books built around a quietly affecting human tragedy can not only fail to be affecting or "real", but be tacky as well. There is a charity-mugging element at play: readers might feel guilty for being unmoved, or that they owe the events portrayed a certain solemnity. It isn’t that Govinden wants to make us sentimental. Amal, who isn’t the problem, is most sympathetic when thinking unkind thoughts and displacing his grief onto innocent bystanders in a village tea-shop. But Claude is so meagrely evoked that her miscarriage and its attendant sadness is trivialised. Perhaps it’s the way Govinden has her and all his characters speak, which is both unconvincing and clichéd – full of lazy sarcasm and throwaway rhetorical questions, like a script that hasn’t yet been read aloud by actors: “Read between the lines, Amal. Are you really that stupid?’ “Thanks for that, ‘Mal. You’re doing a really good job of making me feel better.” (Characters refer to each other by name more often than necessary, as if reminding themselves of their existence.) Why any discerning prize committee would favour this book, or actively introduce it into circulation, is baffling.

Paradoxically, readers still look to prize lists for non-bureaucratic recommendations. If there’s one thing we don’t need another prize or list for, it’s unremarkable books which probably don’t give the best impression of their authors. 

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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