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. 

Does every author deserve recognition for taking part? Photo: Getty
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism