Judging the David Higham Award - review by A S Byatt

A S Byatt

First Novels

Judging the David Higham Award


They said when they invited me to judge the David Higham award for first novels this year that it would not be too onerous – about 20 books, they said. There were, in fact, 37. I took the job on out of various kinds of curiosity. I thought the novels would provide an interesting survey of the state of British fiction – what kinds of things people are writing about, what forms they are using. I thought it would provide me with some insight into the state of mind of publishers faced with larger number of manuscripts most of which, even if published, will not themselves make a profit – what do they think is promising? Or more than promising? I thought I might find something new – a new kind of writing, a new subject matter. The other Higham judges this year were Walter Allen and Elizabeth Berridge: although our decision about the winning novel was genuinely and immediately unanimous, I must stress that anything else I write about the reading represents only my own inexperienced views, not theirs.

I suppose the first impression I formed was that the ‘first novelists’ were a more cautious and conservative body, in general, than one might have hoped. Most of the novels were reasonably well made, but most fell into a few easily recognisable categories. Besides the thriller and science fiction, there was a category of softly, sweetly, nostalgic novels about the English past, rather like television serials. There were a cluster of spine-chillers, flirting with the gruesome or the supernatural. There were, as one would expect, several novels about the discovery of identity – Virginia Fassnidge’s Finding Out is a good title to exemplify this – and in these, competence seemed also to be promise. Then there were novels which attempted to explore larger social issues – David Hanly’s In Guilt and In Glory, which is an ambitious but somewhat wooden run at the ‘real Ireland’ and Irma Kurtz’s The Grand Dragon, which besides being a Finding Out novel also sets a Jewish Heroine against a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon to whom she is involuntarily attracted. Then there were five or six less easily categorisable novels, which were also, in my view, the best.

During the reading, one began to form criteria to separate the sheep from the goats, promise from simple self-indulgence, a live sense of form from hackneyed imitation. The ‘science fiction’ category contained, rather to my surprise, considering what the young seem to read and buy and care about, only one

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