Last night I sat watching the starry, televised An Post Irish Book Awards, celebrating Doireann Ni Griofa's winning non-fiction book A Ghost in the Throat. I once again admired and envied the confidence with which Ireland celebrates its literature, and the great interest taken in them by both broadcasters and the public. But this year, I can’t even compare the two ceremonies, because Scotland’s awards will not take place.
Literary criticism – among which nestles the affirmation from awards – is fragile in Scotland, not only because much of it relies on public funding with its ups and downs but because much of it also once relied upon newspaper space and arts editor roles which have been cut and cut and cut.
And yet as part of a healthy literary ecosystem, criticism is a necessity. It’s useful for commercial sales and reaching readers, but it’s also an important pillar in itself, in discussing, understanding and building upon the books that are crafted here. Art does not exist in a vacuum. Beneath every artwork, book or otherwise, are foundations: financial, personal and cultural.
Distinctly Scottish storytelling traditions
Scottish literary culture does not slot neatly into wider UK lit culture, but rather, kind of overlaps; working together when possible, but also doing its own thing. The Scottish publishing industry is distinct in how it operates, with its own systems of arts funding and network bodies, operating far from London’s media bubble which too often views Scottish themes as other and parochial.
Scottish literature draws on its own distinct storytelling traditions, artistic communities, and languages. And so we need our own awards, our own systems of esteem, our own historical record, criticism, and appraisal of Scottish books.
But it’s not to say the awards in their current form are without issues, or that they have served all well. Amidst the disappointment in the trade, not least because cancellation has come late in the year when judging would usually be done and dusted, is a quiet acknowledgement of this.
A year ago, academics Stevie Marsden and Claire Squires published their report, “The First Rule of Judging Club… Inside the Saltire Society Literary Awards”. It’s worth reading in full for anyone interested, but it brought to light weaknesses in the judging process and persistent issues with gender imbalance, something which has plagued many literary awards for decades.
And in the last few years alone, more than one woman has spoken publicly about their discomfort with the process, from both the judging and the winning sides. When I write that critical esteem and awards are important to writers, that must include Scottish woman writers.
As Squires and Marsden summed up in the abstract to their study, “Book awards are a pervasive aspect of contemporary book culture, attracting both substantial media and scholarly attention. They confer prestige, create marketing opportunities, push sales, and contribute to the early stages of canon formation.”
Questions remain as to what exactly these book awards should look like and how they are operated, or whether a separate award for Scottish women writers would help or compound the problem of their marginalisation.
I’ve engaged with the Saltire awards as a publisher who has both won and lost (that’s the way it goes), and as a judge, joining the panel for two years during which I enjoyed seeing the breadth of Scottish writing and finding gems.
But as a Scottish writer with my own first book out this year, even one buffered by my working knowledge of the publishing industry which rather tempers expectations of glory, my first reaction was to feel quite gutted at the abrupt cancellation. Of all the prizes out there, this was the one my short, unconventional, Scottish-rooted book Exit just might have had a shot at.
The hope, however far-fetched, of joining the ranks of previous First Book winners like Ali Smith or Louise Welsh, who received recognition early in their careers, has dissipated. My fellow first-time authors this year include Booker winner Douglas Stuart, Alice Tarbuck, Francine Toon, Shola Von Reinhold, Graeme Armstrong, Peter Ross, Daisy Lafargue. There have been new novels by Kirstin Innes and Jenni Fagan. And many more. None recognised by national Scottish book awards.
The cherry on top of 2020
As Helen McClory, winner of the First Book Award in 2015 tweeted, “I wouldn’t have a career if I hadn’t won the Saltire First Book of the Year in 2015. I honestly believe that. The prize supports small presses and experimental works – and the future writers of Scotland are missing out.”
The challenges of this year have left many stunned. For first time writers, it felt like fate was having a laugh. To reach the milestone of bringing a book out, but in the one year it has been impossible to physically launch and promote it has been difficult to say the least, widespread personal and professional struggles aside.
Booksellers and festivals have done what they could online. There have been many moments of goodwill and cheer from readers. But the cherry on top of 2020 is having a first book out the year the First Book of the Year award has been cancelled.
For the close-knit Scottish book trade of publishers and booksellers, these end-of-the-year awards celebrate the milestone of making it through another year; still in business, having pushed a little further, bolstered by the cheer of others.
Generally, it has been a good few years. Sometimes there have been big, starry achievements to reflect on. There has always been grit and perseverance. This year, of all years, we could have done with celebrating making it through.