Scotlit’s subliminal awards

(A version of this article appeared in Scotland on Sunday in January 2004. It reflects on the shift in policy on the part of the Scottish Arts Council from giving a series of small awards to giving one large one.)

I woke on Wednesday morning to our usual alarm call: Radio 4 blaring out yet more Blair news – and the result of the Whitbread. So The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time won and Don Paterson’s excellent Landing Light did not. I was just reflecting on how poetry always seems to lose out to prose when the announcer made a curious mistake. She said the Whitbread was the only prize in Britain to combine the categories of poetry, fiction and other prose forms. It isn’t, and I know because I was long-listed for the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year, an award which offered ten grand to fiction, faction and fine poetry alike.

So what? you might say. The long list? you might add.  A carrot is as close as a rabbit gets to a diamond, you might conclude. (If you were a Captain Beefheart fan, and who isn’t?) But there’s a serious point for Scots being missed among the entirely deserved plaudits going to Mark Haddon’s book. OK, the radio programme hadn’t done its research as well as it could have, but why wasn’t it an obvious fact known UK-wide that Scotland has a significant cross-genre award? It made me worry whether it was an obvious fact known Scotland-wide?

You see, among my splendid record of near misses (what do you mean, don’t give up the day job?) was a place on the short list for the Saltire Award, yet another Scottish prize that Radio 4 hadn’t heard of which is open to writers across the categories. Or at least, that’s what I thought was happening. My publisher was certainly told I was on the shortlist, but when, suffused with fragile and momentary vanity, I looked for confirmation of this on the net or in a paper, I couldn’t find any.

Eventually, after the prize was announced (yes, of course I didn’t win it, that’s why I’ve still got the day job), I was sent one clipping from a Scottish newspaper. In other words, it, like the SAC Book of the Year, hadn’t made it one inch across that border, and most likely hadn’t permeated the consciousness of many literate, highly-cultured Scots very far either.

So what? you might say. There’s more important things, you might add. Somebody’s had too much to think, you might conclude. (You’d be taking this Beefheart thing a stage too far.) But my point is simple: we’re doing a fantastic generation of Scottish writers a great disservice by not getting their names out there as Scots. Certainly, Don Paterson, William Dalrymple and James Robertson (winners of the T.S. Eliot, SAC and Saltire prizes respectively), are seen as significant writers. But is their Scottishness even noticed by a UK audience oblivious to our attempts to celebrate their work? Is it seen as relevant to their achievement? Whether it is or it isn’t, surely the topic is worth debating?

I have two conclusions from this: one is that our awards should be publicised across the entire UK as well as within Scotland. Perhaps they already are, in the way one clipping did eventually reach me about the Saltire, but that doesn’t seem good enough. We’re far too timid about saying literature matters, and particularly about saying that our literature matters. Scottish writing is in the healthiest state it has achieved for hundreds of years. It has been flourishing now for fifty years. More than lip service needs to be paid to this fact.

The other conclusion is to do with my obscure specialism, poetry, and that first reaction to the news that Landing Light had lost out to The Curious Incident: poets, like gentlemen, come second. Unless you’re Heaney or Hughes, fergid it. Despite all avowments to the contrary, the press is always going to be swayed by the belief that prose is more important than poetry because it reaches more people and makes more money – so too, apparently, are the judges. Putting poetry up against prose in these combined category awards is usually going to confirm this covert second banana status.

Perhaps we should rethink the major Scottish prizes and then relaunch them to the national press. Perhaps if we separated out the categories the sheer quantity of stars in the Scottish firmament would be slightly more visible. Or perhaps I should keep my mouth shut and my hand held out – as the good Captain says, I may be hungry but I sure ain’t weird.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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