The height of the literary prize season, when everybody – or nearly everybody – is talking about books, might, perhaps, be a good time to talk about politics instead. In six years as a political correspondent – first for Spectator, then for Private Eye – the only useful thing I learned was that even fewer people are interested in politics than are interested in books. But a magazine which tries to cover the field must also take account of the minority interests. Current efforts being made to repoliticise the novel from the left – however sad and hopeless the effort may seem – offer an opportunity to examine the subject anew.
A briefly fashionable young book reviewer was urging readers of the Independent last September that literary prizes are a danger to the health of British novels. Oddly enough, this is a burden I have been singing for nearly twenty years on the grounds that such prizes encourage affectation and esoteric dilettantism. But the new objection to literary prizes, I learn, is that by their nature they discourage political commitment. Thatcher. The bomb. Fundamentalist Islam. The single European market. These are the subjects which novelists are discouraged from addressing – possibly because the judges are as bored by these subjects as everyone else.
I feel I scarcely need to re-state my conviction that to encourage novelists to take an interest in these dismal subjects would be the worst possible service to the English novel. When the Booker shortlist was published last September, it was generally observed that many front-runners had been excluded: Amis mi, Barnes, Brookner, Drabble, Faulks, Frayn, Golding, Thubron, Weldon. To these I would add my own particular list of Forster, Lively, Mantel, Massie. But Amis mi seems a particularly pointed exclusion, rather like the exclusion of Graham Greene, year after year, from the ponderous deliberations of the Nobel Committee. It has been suggested that Amis was excluded from the list on the insistence of the two women on the committee, who felt that his disregard for feminist sensibilities made him politically unacceptable.
One hears that Amis mi has had similar difficulties with his novels in New York. I see no point at all in worrying about Islamic fundamentalists, whose literary surveillance is necessarily limited to their own bizarre concerns, if we are to accept this blanket censorship on one of the gigantic struggles of our time.
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After which it is good to report that the Tilling Society, dedicated to celebrating the memory of E F Benson, the Rye social satirist, is planning a huge ball at the Reform Club to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his death on May 19th. I understand the choice of the Reform Club, since its magnificent Barrie design makes it one of the finest buildings in clubland.
However, I must warn them about our experience after the Literary Review’s tenth anniversary party, an occasion much enjoyed by nearly all who attended it. A female guest, caught short and confused by the club’s inadequate arrangements, was forced to avail herself of the gentlemen’s lavatory. Now the club’s administration has banned the magazine and its saintly proprietor from giving a party there ever again. Tickets for the Tilling Society Ball (from Martello Bookshop, 26 High Street, Rye, East Sussex) cost a cool £57.50 per person. Female guests are advised to bring a chamber pot.
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News of the Academy Club – more properly the Academy – is all good at the moment of going to press, except for some irritating suggestions in the newspapers to the effect that the club is hoping to be smart in the sense of fashionable and exclusive. Nothing could be further from our intention. The only reason for proposing the Four Qualifications is to encourage applications from those who would enjoy membership and discourage those who would not. The idea is to provide a friendly refuge in the West End for contributors and subscribers to the magazine, poor writers and other congenial people prepared to put up with them. Taki may belong, if he wishes, but I swear that none of his worrying friends could possibly wish to join.
The first list of founder members – probably about 200 of them – will be settled on October 30th when the Committee (myself, L Cumming, S Sackville-West, V Glendinning, N Attallah) will also approve the Club’s Constitution, to be printed on this page. Founding membership will remain available until the club opens on December 12th, after which the membership question will become more confused, since we are bound to limit numbers in deference to the size of the premises.
Those who have put off applying, but who would like a clear passage, should not delay in sending letters of application and returnable cheques (£50 for country and foreign, £75 for London membership) either to me or to the Membership Secretary at 51, Beak Street, Wl.
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This month’s Grand Poetry Competition for January’s magazine, as set out on page 63, invites poems which rhyme, scan and make sense to welcome the New Decade. Entries should arrive at Literary Review’s offices in 51 Beak Street, London W1R 3LF by November 24th, 1989, limited to two entries per competitor to qualify for a first prize of £400, second prize of £150, with £10 for all entries printed.
This month’s second prize exhausts the Paul Callan benefaction, which means that January’s second prize must come from Adrian Rowbotham Films of 25 Poland Street, W1 (‘probably the best films in the world’). Thereafter second prizes will revert to £50 from the magazine.
This is abominably unfair as second-bests are often just as good as the entries which scrape through to win first prize on points. I hope somebody or’ some firm will offer to put up £100 – better still, offer to keep it going for several months – so that we can continue our £150 second prizes: some great captain of industry, perhaps, who always came second at school, or any saintly person with particular compassion for life’s also-rans, near-winners who never quite made it.