Walter Scott Prize: Tan’s prize surprise

Over the last years we’ve seen the rise and rise of the literary prize. It’s not surprising. So many books are published every year in the UK (more than 200,000) that we need prize shortlists to help us choose what to read.
Tan Twan Eng winner of this years Walter Scott Prize. Picture: contributedTan Twan Eng winner of this years Walter Scott Prize. Picture: contributed
Tan Twan Eng winner of this years Walter Scott Prize. Picture: contributed

Prizes have become more specialised too. There are the blockbusters, of course – the Man Booker, the Costa and the new Folio Prize – but hard on their heels are the more specialised genre prizes: the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards for crime fiction, the Betty Trask Award for romantic fiction, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and, latest off the starting chocks but muscling its way upwards, the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. And that’s not even to start on the plethora of prizes for children’s books; the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals, the Red House Children’s Book Award and many more.

The starting point for any prize is its ethos. The Betty Trask was the concept of a woman who loved romantic fiction. The Women’s Prize for Fiction celebrates women’s voices in this male-dominated world. The CWA Dagger Awards serve a community of enthusiastic crime readers. Children’s prizes aim to get more children reading.

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I’ve been a judge of the Walter Scott Prize since its inception in 2010, and I’m constantly fascinated to see how it works.

The stated aim of the Walter Scott Prize is to celebrate and preserve the memory of Sir Walter Scott, the inventor of historical fiction. Set up by the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch, who are notable patrons of the arts, the prize is one of the most generous awards in Britain, with a whopping £25,000 going to the winner.

Its unstated aim is to reawaken interest in Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s exquisite house in the Borders, which had been neglected for some time, and to uplift the cultural life of the Borders region. The prize is announced every June at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, known by those who snap up tickets to its events every year as one of the most enchanting festivals in the British literary calendar.

A word here about the term “historical fiction”. For a long time, it was associated with the bonnets-and- frills brigade, the Jane Austen wannabes, with panting heroines in crinolines and moustache-twirling cavalry officers in pantaloons. Literary masterpieces such as Robert Graves’s I Claudius, JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, not to mention Great Expectations and War and Peace, would not have been patronised with the term. It’s only when you look at the shortlists of the Walter Scott Prize over the last four years that you realise what a rich source of inspiration history now is for our greatest writers.

Here’s how the prize works:

Publishers submit up to three titles to the prize organisers. This is the hopeful historical novel’s first hurdle and it might get no further. The publisher might be asleep. Or, in some cases, too mean to pay the promotion fee should the book be shortlisted. (How many authors, I wonder, anxiously wait for shortlists to be announced, unaware that their publisher never even submitted their novel?)

The book’s next task is to pass under the eyes of an army of discerning volunteer “sifters”, who trawl through the titles and reduce the number down to a manageable longlist. At this point, the judges have a final chance to nudge sleepy publishers awake, and call in any books they feel have been missed.

The packages of books land with thumps on the judges’ doormats. I open my parcels with some trepidation. Will there be a surefire winner here? Will I actually like these books? Above all, how am I going to find time to read all of them in a few weeks?

The judges meet to pick the shortlist. Into the room come Elizabeth Dalkeith, Alistair Moffat, Kirsty Wark, Louise Richardson, Jonathan Tweedie and myself. The Duke of Buccleuch, in his self-effacing way, takes notes but manages to refrain from offering opinions. Coffee is poured. We sit down.

“I dislike this book intensely,” someone says.

“Really? But it’s extraordinary!” says another.

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“I struggled to finish it. Dull, cold characters, insipid writing … Compare it with this one, which is quite magnificent. I was gripped from start to finish.”

“So was I,” says a third judge.

“Honestly?” says a fourth. “I wanted to throw it across the room.”

The shortlist is hammered out at last, and magically we all feel happy with it. Publishers are informed. A press release is sent out. We imagine the yelps of joy as six authors receive their heart-lifting phone call.

Weeks pass. The shortlist must be read again. We convene once more. The books are so varied that they’re hard to compare. Like all readers, we bring to the table our own tastes and prejudices.

We get stuck in. Sections of the books are read out and compared. Elegance and strength of writing, characterisation, authenticity of dialogue, the truthfulness of the novel to its period, the importance of what it tells us about our world in the past and today – all these principles are invoked. The result often hangs on a knife-edge. If no clear winner emerges, we are forced to take a vote (a literary penalty shoot-out we all wish to avoid). But at last the decision is made. Our lips must remain sealed until the award ceremony in Melrose, and we can’t wait for the day.

And now the day has come. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng has just pipped the others to the post. The novel has enchanted us with its evocation of Malaya at the end of the Japanese occupation, with its complex dance of guilt, reconciliation and forgiveness, its subtle merging of politics, art, landscape and personal history, the weaving together of its characters within the formal perfection of the Japanese garden, with the wild forest and its menacing terrorist threat pressing in from all sides.

The literary prize is an increasingly important element in our national cultural life. It may feed the gaping commercial monster of sales and publicity, but it isn’t spawned by it. The Walter Scott Prize is a sign that the literary life of this country is alive and in rude health. We should celebrate it.

The shortlist for this year’s prize is Toby’s Room by Pat Barker, The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally, Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, The Streets by Anthony Quinn, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, and Merivel by Rose Tremain.

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Past winners of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction are Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2010), The Long Song by Andrea Levy (2011), and On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry, 2012.

• Tan Twan Eng will be reading at Looking Glass Books, 36 Simpson Loan, Quartermile, Edinburgh on 18 June at 6.30pm.

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