You may, like me, have spent much of your life wondering what happily ever after was like - that bit of the story after the final full stop. Well, not the final full stop, obviously, but the penultimate one. I've had nearly three years of it now, the poet and me in love and living opposite each other in ageing, bi-domestic bliss, and I can tell you it's very nice indeed, but localised. That is, the glow of well-being does not extend to the world in general. It sheds no light at all on the invasion of Iraq or the liars and warmongers who couldn't wait for their big military adventure. The oppression of Palestine remains as dark and shameful as ever. And the shrugging acceptance of a United States free to roam the world correcting un-Americanism wherever it might be seen sits in a black box with a large question mark stamped on it. My instinct is to pull down the blinds, unplug the TV, cancel the papers and on no account listen to the radio (except to Eddie Mair on Broadcasting House). But I can't help peeking, and my dismay grows.
Now, to add to my irritations, I've been dragged, in a state of unseemly grumpiness, into the world of book prizes. Until this year, I've refused to let my publishers submit any of my books for prizes, because I don't think that I write to compete. Horse races are good for horses, not for writers; but publishers love prizes, because a book that wins gets free publicity and keeps the advertising budget for bestsellers. Advertising doesn't sell serious books, they say. But advertising sells cornflakes, I say. Your books are not cornflakes, they say. And I slink away ashamed.
For some authors, writing even a half-decent book is a long, slow process, a quiet, sometimes difficult thing to do. Head down, sit for hours on your own in a room, make things up, make it work. Although there are, I dare say, those who enjoy emerging into a blazing spotlight of air kisses and teary gratitude, there are surely others who just want to get on with what they do, be published, and earn a living if not a fortune. But there's no longer a choice. It's showbiz or die. If you want to get published, they insisted to me, you'd better let your books be submitted, and I heard the silent corollary: if you want to go on being published, you'd better be a winner. Anyway, this is real life, no room for fading wallflowers who just write. Have you thought about stand-up comedy or cooking? Publishers' contracts these days include a clause detailing a variety of extra payments triggered by winning different prizes (there are winners and losers in terms of prizes, too). Winners win - it's an old biblical truth.
This month, my most recent book* was chosen out of a shortlist for a prize, and in case there is any doubt about the showbiz nature of book prizes, I was informed I'd won ten days before the prize-giving, while the others on the shortlist were not told the outcome in advance, presumably to make sure they'd turn up and not spoil the public spectacle of watching people lose. Someone at my publishers congratulated me "on being a winner". Which presumably means that had I not won, I would have been a loser, and that all the other writers who have not had their book chosen are also losers.
When authors publicly compete with one another in knockout competitions, and bookies quote odds, the writing loses out. Lists and nostalgia win. You end up with an Orange list of all-time favourite fictional heroes. Three cheers for Maggie Tulliver, down with Humbert Humbert. Your hundred best reads is no more about writing than your hundred best tunes is about music. In any case, books chosen by committees are hardly ever anyone's favourite. As a rule, the winning book is the one that each committee member is prepared to countenance when it is clear that the book they really like can't win.
A winning book is generally everyone's second or third choice. Good writing needs a better kind of nurturing than this. Prize-winning and celebrity are cheap and easy ways of deciding what is good. Where publishers once used their own judgement, they now try to reproduce past winners. After Longitude, you get Latitude, then Latitude Two, Son of Latitude and Far Too Much Latitude.
So, I won a prize - £1,000 and a silver pen - and I was really grouchy. I suffered, my publisher suffered, the cats suffered, the poet suffered. Very few people can do ingratitude like I can. However, it turns out that there is a god and she is a mistress of irony. Just in time for the arrival of the cheque, my boiler gave up the ghost. My plumber gave me the bill for installing the new one this week, and guess how much the bill was for? The pen, I get to keep. Keith the plumber, wearing overalls on loan from Versace and in a voice choked with emotion, would like to thank everyone who made the payment possible. This cheered me up no end. I've pulled up my blinds and I'm even thinking of plugging in the TV again. I'm sweetness itself to my cats and love has weathered the storm. I do have a lurking anxiety, however. What if I should win one of those really big prizes, a tens of thousands of pounds job? That would probably cover the cost of a whole floor of my house collapsing. Perhaps this is why they warn the winner in advance, so that she can gather her loved ones and her laptop in her arms and make her escape well before the house comes crashing down.
* Stranger on a Train (Virago)