When one of your works has been submitted for consideration in a local Annual Book Awards contest, you do tend to harbour quiet hopes that you might even make it to the short list. Of course, with odds about the same as winning the lottery, it’s never going to happen. Yet the thought in the months approaching the announcement of a short list does keep a candle flickering.
Yet the reality of writing for a living teaches you, after a few years, that the only award you can expect is the one you give yourself for every new year of literary survival. I get all the regular newsletters, Writing East Midlands, Nottingham Writer’s Studio, National Association of Writers in Education, The Author from the Society of Authors and The Journalist from the NUJ. They are always bristling with award schemes where the writer can submit their work and be considered for plaudits presented by our peers. I did win a poetry competition about 5 years ago, and I once got a generous literature award from the Arts Council, but that’s about it. The last award I was entered into by my publisher was the East Midlands Book Award. The book was the kind of work the literati would never touch with a bargepole, The Mammoth Book of Unexplained Phenomena (2013, Constable & Robinson/Little, Brown Inc.) Sales-wise, it has done remarkably well both in the UK, Canada, USA and the Antipodes, and has sold enough to justify a re-print. But despite great reviews, this is not the kind of garbage literary judges read. Literary arbiters are, in the main, serious novelists who usually have the prefix ‘celebrated’ before their names. They have little or no time to waste reading the kind of quasi cod history or popular culture which floats my creaking boat. That said, I’m sure they wouldn’t give an award to Dan Brown (nor would I) or Jeffrey Archer or anyone else of that ilk whose work dominates the shelves at every airport W.H. Smith.
There’s another reason, though, for a ‘D’ list writer such as myself to not try and enter for awards. The fact is, not reaching even the grey outside area of a slight passing mention, your confidence is eroded and your self-loathing is cranked up a few gears. In athletic terms, you might say that award winners are the Usain Bolts of writing whilst people such as myself are happy to run along fast enough to catch a bus. Sour grapes? Yeah, hell, why not. You spend 80 hours per week writing 2,000 words per day and enter into meticulous research, and even with the absence of an agent, you get yourself a deal. You make a meagre living, yet have no idea who your readers are, and work alone in cold isolation. Sometimes you think ‘I wonder when I’ll get a pat on the back?’ But it never happens. So I cancel all these dog in the manger emotions out every morning at 9 am when I stare at today’s blank page. Once I’ve written that first paragraph, I’ve awarded myself.
Therefore Whitbread, Booker and all will never worry me, and the knowledge that I can’t write to the expected intellectual literary standards of the TLS or London Review of Books or that my work will never grace the review pages of the Guardian or Observer has finally ceased to bother me. In 1956, when I was 13, I promised myself that one day I would write for a living. It took 32 jobs until I finally made the break and began in 1997, but I got there in the end. So there’s the award; the IWP: (I was Published) it’s a one-off, with only one entrant, me. Well, as the author of Peyton Place, Grace Metalious said: ‘I’m a lousy writer; a helluva lot of people have got lousy taste.’ Fair comment, Grace. Back to the prose-face …
Honoured By Strangers: The Life of Captain F.N.A. Cromie (1882-1918) will be re-issued as an e-book as part of the Great War commemorations by
Constable & Robinson/Little, Brown Inc. June 2014