November 16, 2008

First Word: Erica Wagner on The Warwick Prize for Writing

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I can only agree with what Erica Wagner has written for The Times on 14th November:

IF YOU'VE EVER been the judge of a literary prize - and I have judged a few - people will often ask you what it's like. UsuallyErica Wagner they are worried about how you coped with the sheer amount of reading involved. I'm always a little surprised by any claim that this is a herculean task, when there are plenty of jobs out there more onerous than book-reading.

That said, I am not certain that I envy the judges of the new Warwick Prize for Writing; its longlist was announced this week. I'm excited about this prize, which bills itself as “an international cross-disciplinary biennial award open to substantial pieces of writing in the English language, in any genre or form”. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, eh? Throw into the mix that the theme for the 2009 prize is “complexity”, and frankly I'm not sure how the judges - chaired by China Miéville, self-described writer of weird fiction - began to work out what they might consider.

The prize is worth £50,000 - not to be sneezed at. So what kind of book fits into the broad-minded category described? Joseph O'Neill's much-praised novel Netherland, for one, which missed out on the Man Booker Prize; but also The Rest is Noise, a book of music criticism by The New Yorker's terrific Alex Ross. So far, so fair enough, one might say. But here too on this whiplashing longlist is Torques: Drafts 58-76 by the American poet-critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis, which is part of a poetic project the author has been working on since the mid-1980s, and is brought to British audiences courtesy of the ever-adventurous Salt Publishing. You can head to the website for the rest of the titles, which include a first novel, a book of science fiction, and an investigation into the political misuse of mathematical statistics.

I can only celebrate the diversity of this prize, while at the same time trembling at the thought of the meetings that will whittle this list down to a shortlist (to be announced at the end of January 2009) and, finally, a winner in February. It will be fascinating to learn how the judges will measure one book against another, and how they will express their definitions of quality and complexity.

It's too easy, as a reader, to fall into the trap of thinking that you always know the sort of book you like to read. The Warwick Prize might help to break us all out of that box.

Erica Wagner was born in New York City in 1967. She grew up on the Upper West Side and went to the Brearley School. Her first job was helping her mother to answer all the fan mail for The Muppets; she can slit open one envelope and slip a picture of Miss Piggy into another like nobody’s business. She moved to Britain in the 1980s to continue her education: first at St Paul’s Girls’ School, then at Cambridge, and finally at the University of East Anglia, where she was taught by the late Malcolm Bradbury and by Rose Tremain.

She now lives in London, where she works as Literary Editor of The Times. In 1997 she published a book of short stories, Gravity (Granta), and three years later, following the publication of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, a biographical gloss on that book, Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters (Faber & Faber; W. W. Norton). Her stories have been widely anthologized and been broadcast on the radio; her poems have appeared in The TLS and PNReview.

She now edits the Books section that appears every Saturday in The Times, and writes a weekly column in that section, as well as reviews and articles. She’s interviewed such writers as Seamus Heaney, Donna Tartt, Maurice Sendak, Philip Pullman, Gitta Sereny, Paul Auster, Alan Garner, Peter Ackroyd, Bill Bryson and Nick Hornby. She reviews regularly for The New York Times, and also appears frequently on the radio and on television. She has been a guest on such programmes as (in Britain) Today, Front Row, The Culture Show, and (in the USA) Charlie Rose and Larry King Live.

She has judged many literary prizes; the Man Booker in 2002 (when the winner was Yann Martel’s Life of Pi), the Orange Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Forward Prize. She sits on the Executive Committee of PEN and on the Advisory Committee of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Erica is a fencer (epée), loves to cook, knit, sing and ride on her scooter (the push kind, not the motor kind). She loves to listen to stories as well as read them, and seeks out fine storytellers from all over the world. She is deeply attached to the Brooklyn Bridge, and often travels back to New York to cross the East River on its span.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Sue

    She sounds indefatiguable!

    16 Nov 2008, 19:59

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