Tag Archives: writing prizes

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!

Man Booker Prize: Not About Literary Value?

Like every other book blogger in the Western Hemisphere, I’m here today to chew over the Man Booker Prize shortlist, announced yesterday. Here it is:

Aravind Adiga — The White Tiger
Sebastian Barry — The Secret Scripture
Amitav Ghosh — Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant — The Clothes on Their Backs
Philip Hensher — The Northern Clemency
Steve Toltz —  A Fraction of the Whole

Two first time novelists, one woman, and no Rushdie.

The two first-timers, Aravind Adiga and Steve Toltz, are currently getting the best odds, though how the bookies calculate these things I have no idea. Here’s a link to The Guardian’scondensed read” version of the books. And here’s an absolutely fascinating article, also from The Guardian, in which Man Booker judges from previous years talk about their experiences. Warning, folks: It ain’t pretty.

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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.

Nonfiction Writing Awards

The winner of the UK based and BBC Radio Four sponsored Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction was announced a coupe of days ago: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale. The author receives £30,000, or $60,000 at today’s crapulous exchange rate. I think this makes it the richest purse for nonfiction in the world. Even the Pultizer prize winners only get a measly $10,000.

Being Brits, the organizers have to hyphenate nonfiction — something I choose not to do as I have been living in the States for nearly ten years now and besides, “non-fiction” just seems so…formal. Plus it puts more emphasis on the components of the word, which makes it seem like a reaction of a genre, defined in opposition to the “true art” of fiction. Am I the only one to hear the implied slur in that, or am I just being over sensitive?

I have actually been looking for an alternative to “nonfiction” for some time. Faction? Reality prose? Both gross — any better suggestions, anyone?