Tag Archives: Writing Awards

Are You a Fox or a Hedgehog?

There’s an interesting article over at the Guardian book pages from their literary critic, Robert McCrum, about the different types of writers that tend to get considered for literary awards. He draws from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay, The Fox and The Hedgehog, as a way of classifying the types. (You can download the essay by clicking here), and read more about Berlin in this article in The Independent.

In fiction, Berlin’s famous distinction between hedgehogs and foxes, drawn from the pithy fragment attributed to the classical poet Archilochus (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”) remains influential. Hedgehogs, in Berlin’s celebrated essay, see the world through the lens of one big, defining idea. They include Plato, Dante, Proust and Nietzsche. Foxes, who scour the landscape, drawing on a wide variety of experience and are indefatigably averse to a single explanatory idea, include Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, James Joyce and, dare I say, Salman Rushdie.

McCrum doesn’t stop there, though. He also contrasts “history course novels” (such as those produced by Pat Barker and Ian McEwen) and the kind of “English course novels” that Martin Amis and Lorrie Moore write. Then, in nonfiction, there are the “mores” and the “differents.”

Mores are writers who, as the label implies, are immensely gifted and vastly superior to their fellows, but are conventional in their vision. Classic mores include Thomas The World Is Flat Friedman and Niall The Pity of War Ferguson. Your different, who might be a hedgehog or a fox, is a mould-smashing one-off, usually an original, and probably quite undisciplined, writer. Differents include Dostoevsky, Oliver Sacks, Naomi Klein, Kurt Vonnegut, George Orwell and Atul Gawande. As readers, we may be better satisfied, in the short term, by the mores, but it’s the differents we remember, and who will probably have the lasting influence.

McCrum’s argument is that “foxes” and “mores” win more prizes than “hedgehogs” and “differents.” It would take more of an in depth survey than I am prepared to carry out to prove him right, but I can certainly get on board with the idea that we live in a fox’n’more orientated society, and it’s these writers who seem to earn the most money. We demand versatility from our writers, and breadth of knowledge. It ain’t easy being different!

The Dept. of Cross Cultural Misunderstandings

Salman's Prize

Salman's Prize (pic. care of UnBeige)

So Salman Rushdie was recently honored at the Moth Ball (a fundraising event for the popular and acclaimed storytelling forum). He got a designer statuette! There it is, above. Awesome. It’s a peace sign. Only, in my homeland, if you turn that thing around, it means something very different. No, not victory, my sweet, innocent American readers. It means F*#K OFF. He. He he he he.

Yes — I am more amused by that than I probably should be.

The Warwick Prize For Writing

I take it back. A couple of posts ago I said that the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction was the most lucrative award for fact-based writing in the world. Then I go and find out about Warwick Prize for Writing. I hadn’t heard about it before because it’s brand new — the debut biennial award will be given in 2009, when some lucky writer will be £50,000 (or $100,000) richer. But here’s what makes this award particularly interesting:

1) It’s open to all genres, from poetry to scientific writing, other forms of nonfiction (creative or otherwise) to fiction.

2) It’s open to all forms of publishing, from internet based works to self-published books to works in translation and co-authored books.

Presumably illustrated books and kids books could be included too — why not? Everything else is.

3) It’s international — work must have been published in English, anywhere in the world, within a two-year time frame.

And here’s the clincher:

4) The theme for the inaugural award is, wait for it, complexity. The banner from the top of this post is borrowed from their website. The message it contains might not be cheery, but it’s certainly interesting, and, well, not easy.

So, to summarize, this is an intellectually rigorous award, available to all writers published in English, regardless of form or genre, and open to experimental work. The judges are interested, as it says in their FAQs, in exploring “what literature is, and what new shapes and forms it might be taking.”

Wowzers. In this era of “high concept” pitches for fiction and nonfiction alike, that’s like getting a lungful of sweet Alpine air.

The final thing I love about this award is that it’s democratic too. According to booktrade.info, “…all members of the University of Warwick Staff – from nursery staff and gardeners to professors and porters – are invited to make a nomination for a prize entry by August.”

This is complexity for the masses, people — as all great literature should be.