New American literary award confers $1,500,000 in prizes

Inaugural recipients include Tom MacCarthy, James Salter and Zoë Wicomb.

The novelists Tom MacCarthy, James Salter and Zoë Wicomb are among a group of ten writers who have each been awarded $150,000 (£99,500) as part of the inaugural Donald Windham-Sandy M Campbell Literature Prizes.

The recipients were announced at Yale University on 4 March, but will not receive their awards until 10 September. The only criteria for selection is “outstanding literary achievement” and the prize is open to “English-language writers at all stages of their careers from any country in the world.” The full list of recipients can be found here.

The prize fund is drawn from the combined estates of Sandy M Campbell, an actor and critic who died in 1988, and Donald Windham, the novelist and memoirist who passed away in 2010. The prize will be administered by Yale University. Both wrote fiction and criticism, and acknowledged the freedom financial independence brought them throughout the course of their careers. Windham received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1960.

Windham’s novel, The Dog Star (1950), was reviewed favourably by John Richardson in the New Statesman, and was celebrated by Andre Gidé and Thomas Mann. In his introduction to Windham’s The Warm Country, E M Forster wrote, “To my mind, the most important thing about [Windham] is that he believes in warmth. He knows that human beings are not statues but contain flesh and blood and a heart.”

One recipient, the South African-born novelist Zoë Wicomb lives in Glasgow, and is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing in the School of Humanities. She spoke of her surprise upon hearing about the award:

For a minor writer like myself, this is a validation I would never have dreamt of. I am overwhelmed – and deeply grateful for this generous prize. It will keep me for several years – and it will speed up the writing too, since I can now afford to go away when the first draft proves difficult to produce in my own house.

James Salter’s long-awaited new novel, All That Is, will be published in April by Picador.

James Salter. Photograph: Lana Rys.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage