One of the most iconic photographs of the 20c

Photograph Bob Jackson/AP

It is very seldom that the very moment of a murder is caught on camera, and caught so vividly. This one, taken by photographer Bob Jackson, showing the fatal shooting by Jack Ruby of Lee Harvey Oswald, alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy, won a Pulitzer Prize. The perfection of the shot has led to many conspiracy theories; the angle is just right, Oswald is crumpling inwards instead of being thrown back by the force of the shot, the posture of Detective James R. Leavelle – the large man wearing a light-coloured suit and hat, to whom Oswald is handcuffed – is straight out of the silent movies, and the photo seems to have been taken from a single pace behind Ruby. It is even more remarkable when one considers that it was taken decades before cameras could take several exposures per second at the press of a button.

However, the fact that this famous image is cropped from a larger photograph, shown below, means that the story begins to fill out. Jackson’s vantage point is further away, and in fact the shot was taken around the left shoulder of another man who was several feet away from the incident. It’s true that many of the other people in the shot seem to be simply standing there as though waiting for something to play out, but “simply standing there” was exactly what they were supposed to be doing, whatever their job was. Take the man with the microphone, possibly a radio reporter: his expression is impassive, but just at that moment he has not had time to react to what is happening, and his view of the incident is blocked. Detective Leavelle can be seen to have his hand on Oswald’s belt, trying to jerk him round behind his own body, to put himself between his prisoner and the shooter, so that might be what is pulling Oswald’s body inwards. Capturing what is almost banal about the larger scene is as much a feat of news photography as is the presentation of the cropped image – maybe even more so. There is so much vérité here, or rather actualité.

Photograph Bob Jackson/AP

James R. Leavelle died yesterday, at the age of 99. By a strange quirk of synchronicity, his death was announced at about the same time that the stabbing in prison of Sirhan Bishaa Sirhan was reported. Sirhan was the man convicted of killing President Kennedy’s brother Robert in 1968. Forty years later the San Diego Union Tribune cited that assassination as the first major incident of political violence in the USA directly related to the situation in the Middle East*. Leavelle, Oswald, Ruby, and two Kennedy brothers are dead**, and it seems that only Sirhan remains as a relict and reminder of an extraordinary period in US history.

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*I believe the comment was made on the 8thof June 2008, but due to expired links I can’t verify the source. If I find a link in the future I shall amend this footnote.

**Four, in fact, as older brother Joseph died in 1944, and younger brother Edward in 2009. I believe Jean Ann is the only Kennedy sibling of that generation who is still alive.

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The Book Festival: Photo-mix 2019

Today is the last day of the 2019 Edinburgh International Book Festival, and as usual (though not usually on this blog until now) I have put together a collection of some of the snapshots I have taken during the fortnight-plus. I say “snapshots” deliberately. I use a second-hand Nikon D50, which is hardly cutting-edge. The pro photographers at the Festival rather look down on me, I guess. But I have simply been trying to capture some of the Festival atmosphere, starting with the inevitable picture of Prince Albert, who this year has a slightly unusual background while work is in progress on the dome of West Register House.

#CandidShots
You’ll see that tag as a caption to several of my pictures. The Festival Press Office has told me not to take pictures of the writers and performers other than at book-signings or at an organised photo-call. I try, I really do! But as I wander round, I take the equivalent of ‘street scenes’ in Charlotte Square Gardens, which I maintain are fair game, and they provide some welcome variety. Sometimes that means I snap interesting people by chance, sometimes it’s Jason Reynolds being interviewed on camera or Jackie Kay at an informal moment, and these are hard shots to resist. Other people are happily snapping away with their smartphones all the while! As it happens, I’ve included neither of those shots in the following mix, but some others are below simply because they represent the ambience of the Festival, and I make no apology for them.

It has been another wonderful Festival. I am very grateful for the Press Office for giving me a media pass once again, and I look forward to 2020. There is so much going on behind all the events and activities – for one thing there is a tireless contingent of staff assisting the festival-goers, selling books, conducting speakers, handling security, dealing with us pestiferous media folk, handling the technology, and so on. You all do a brilliant job. Congratulations!

Joanne Harris signing books in the Edinburgh Gin Company Tent.
#CandidShots. The main theatre has a new name this year.
Neil Oliver is always a very good subject on a photo-call. He takes the trouble to look straight at each camera lens in turn.
‘Blast Off’ was a session for children of all ages on the jobs that a person can be involved with in the field of space exploration. Astronomer Sheila Kanani was the draw for this event in the Spiegeltent.
#CandidShots. The space inside the main bookshop has widened since it was merged with the children’s bookshop in one single area. There’s still space to sit and enjoy traybakes and coffees.
The staff in sky blue work very hard, preparing venues, staffing information points, hosting customers and checking their tickets, so it’s nice to be able to take a break now and then. What better way to spend it than reading a book!
It doesn’t take the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency to track down Alexander McCall Smith.
One of the political figures visiting the Festival was leader of the Conservative Party in Scotland, Ruth Davidson.
Scottish sporting hero Chris Hoy – the Golden Postbox Man himself – was a great draw…
… as were his books!
#CandidShots. This is Festival Director Nick Barley, who stopped for a couple of words with someone queueing for the Spiegeltent.
Veteran Labour politician Roy Hattersley…
… keeping the camera squad busy! #CandidShots
One of the reasons I was at the Festival this year was the James Tait Black Prize. I had been one of the postgraduate readers, and it was good to see the shortlisted books on the shelf in the main bookshop.
And the winners were, as previously reported, Lindsey Hilsum (biography) and Olivia Laing (fiction). This photo is reproduced courtesy of the University of Edinburgh and is ©Lesley Martin.
Sometimes it rained, but there was always a silver lining.
The resident photographer at the Festival is Chris Close. His work is hung around the walkways, and is one reason to keep coming back to the Festival during the whole of its run, to check on new hangings. Some of his work from this year is below, in montages I’ve put together.
Melanie Reid, Justin Davies, and Arundhati Roy, ©Chris Close.
Martin Rowson, Kei Miller, ©Chris Close.
Ian Rankin channeling Oor Wullie, complete with bucket, Jack Monroe, and a sinister shot of Dougie Irvine and Osvar Silva. ©Chris Close.
Journalist Peter Hitchens.
#CandidShots. The Ace of Spades, the Ace of Spades!
Juxtaposing two bits of signage stresses that it’s important to be able to read and write!
Exclamation marks signal what you mustn’t do and what you must do!
Val McDermid, Geetha Marcus, and Danny Dorling.
Jamie Susskind, who delved into the possible future of AI.
#CandidShots. A walkway scene.
Stefi Orazi, who was at the Festival promoting her fascinating book on 20c architectural design and contemporary living, ‘Modernist Estates – Europe: The Buildings and the People who Live in Them Today’.
#CandidShots. Seizing the opportunity to grab a selfie! (The Festival ‘blueshirt’ with the phone camera is off-shot.)
Nikesh Shukla stands firm in the face of lenses!
#CandidShots. Chilling out!
Sue Perkins is ready to rock!
Reflections in the window of the Spiegeltent – ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’?
#CandidShots. I’ll tell you this much – I was out of there before the start of the evening ritual!

The copyright of the photos in this post rests with myself, except where indicated otherwise. Please do not use them elsewhere without first getting permission from me.

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?

The Politics of Prizes: Rightful Winners?
Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Fiammetta Rocco; chaired by Heather Parry
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Sq. Gardens
Edinburgh International Book Festival
2.15pm. 25thAugust

Yet another fairly short report coming up, mainly because this was such an engrossing event so how could I possibly sit there taking notes or tweeting odd sound bites? To have a former Booker Prize judge who is now the Chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing, and the Administrator of the Man Booker International Prize for fiction on the same platform to discuss what drives literary prizes – their scope, their criteria for selection, their judging, their very raison d’être – is something for which one sits up and takes notice and doesn’t waste time with jottings.

One idea that was floated by a member of the audience and taken up by the panel, was that what we read colours what we expect literature to be – “We are all made by the books that are inside us.” Therefore judges of literary competitions, being human, can’t help but be shaped by the culture, in particular the culture of reading, that they were brought up with and live with. Fiammetta Rocco celebrates the fact that judges can’t really be expected to be objective, because books impact on the heart as much as on the head. Judging is a very subjective business.

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey made a distinction between offering a prize specifically to writers with an African heritage, and creating an imprint specifically for them. The former is a way of encouraging people to write, the latter is a way of segregating them – I am paraphrasing here and doing so in a very lean way. I have written in a previous post about the way that genre prizes, such as the Hugo or Nebula for Science Fiction, and the Eisner for graphic novels stimulate and encourage the particular brilliance of each. Genre-specialisation in publishing is accepted, as is gender-specialisation – one only has to think of Virago – so this is not an easy question to deal with. I think Ellah made a convincing argument; however, publishing houses are there to make money, and that will always be their prime motivation. If pressure from the likes of the Chair of the Caine Prize could persuade them that it is in their (vested) interest to offer a broader list, whether that is in terms of genre or authors’ heritage or any other consideration, then that might be for the better!

What of the future? The e-book has not yet obliterated hard copy, driving Waterstones from the High Street and WHSmith from the station concourse, but what impact will the affordances of the future have on literary prize-giving? Who has enough clairvoyance to say! If you have, then feel free to leave it in the comments section below.

EIBF 8
Photo of Fiammetta Rocco ©The Economist; photo of Ellah Wakatama Allfrey ©New African Woman.

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Many thanks to Ellah and Fiammetta for their insights, to Heather Parry for chairing the event, and to Festival Director Nick Barley for inviting members of the James Tait Black Prize postgraduate reading team to be in the audience. We were honoured to be included and fascinated by the discussion.

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The Lonely Londoners drop in on Edinburgh

Patrice Lawrence: Workshop
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

Writers’ Retreat, Charlotte Sq. Gardens
Edinburgh International Book Festival
1pm. 23rdAugust 2019.

This will only be a short report, not a long review, because workshops at Edinburgh Book Festival are unlike chaired events or performances in the larger theatres. They have more in common with informal seminars, and this one was a matter of a couple of dozen of us sitting in a circle, listening to a writer enthusing about one of her favourite books. Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, for Patrice Lawrence, was instrumental in helping her discover the Trinidadian side of her own heritage, and she described her delight in first reading it. A second reading revealed the sadness in it, and also a strong current of sexism displayed by the characters – after all, it is often young men who form the first wave of any migrant movement, and finding their feet sexually is as much a part of their experience as is learning their way around, absorbing culture, or getting used to the weather.

Entering the Writers’ Retreat to the sound of Lord Kitchener’s London Calypso, we, the attendees, had various levels of familiarity with The Lonely Londoners. I had studied it both as an undergraduate and a postgraduate, and in fact I have posted about it before; others had yet to read it. Patrice did manage to coax us to participate a little, but frankly we could have cheerfully floated along on her enthusiasm. The book itself, written in 1956, I can thoroughly recommend. It has an opening that is, or certainly ought to be, as famous as that of A Tale of Two Cities, 1984Pride and Pejudice, or Catcher in the Rye, evocative of an almost Dickensian London. Episodic, though with a common theme, it is arguably a piece of Modernist literature, with its shift of focus and point-of-view (though it is mainly in free indirect style, focalised on the character Moses), its lack of plot resolution, and a wonderful ten-page passage of stream of consciousness. It is full of flawed characters, chancers, overgrown boys out for a good time or simply trying to survive, and one uncompromising woman determined to treat London as if it were Jamaica and to travel in the city as though on a proud Odyssey, but we care about them all – Patrice reminded us of that fact. Above all it has a wonderful sense of time and place.

It was a great pleasure to meet Patrice, and I hope to do so again. As for the workshop experience at the Book Festival, do it if you get the chance.

No info available about this publicity shot of Patrice Lawrence. It was retrieved from an Edinburgh Festival web page.

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A Traveller Named Sue

Sue Perkins: Blundering through Asia
New York Times Main Theatre
Edinburgh International Book Festival
1.30pm. 22ndAugust, 2019

reviewed by Paul Thompson

After this event, I exchanged a few words with Jackie McGlone, who had chaired it. We confessed we’d both fallen a bit in love with Sue Perkins; this wasn’t going to be of any use to the three of us, because Jackie’s straight, Sue’s gay, and I’m male. Last I checked. Jackie told me that this follow-up to her first event that Sue had agreed to do at short notice, about her book East of Croydon – I hope no one needs me to explain the references in that title – had turned out to be totally different from the first one. This was due, of course, to Sue’s instantaneous wit, her never being lost for words or for ideas to express in those words. In fact, she had us laughing today without saying a word, just on the basis of a few facial expressions.

Sue Perkins is, of course, a very familiar figure in comedy and broadcasting. The more I listened to her and watched her today, the more I began to see – or rather suspect – that her public face was not all there was to her. I could see an occasional hint that there was a side to her that would only be revealed at home, with her boots off, to a partner. Then she would take a vacation from the Sue Perkins we all see, and with whom Jackie and I had just fallen in love, from her public persona. There is probably a space where she can be flat, or irritable, or just ordinary. That is not to say that her public persona is a false one, it can’t be, it’s essential, it’s Sue Perkins and that’s that. No one can do what she does without it coming from something dominant in their character.

On that basis, she had the audience in a sell-out NYT Theatre in the palm of her hand. We laughed, we were moved, and sometimes, due to her description of her experiences in Southeast Asia – notably the one about pig’s offal flying everywhere – we were close to upchucking. As Sue says, “It’s impossible to downchuck!” The choice of food in Southeast Asia, she told us, was between the unfamiliar dishes that the locals eat, and their attempts at Western cuisine. Her advice was not to be tempted by the apparently familiar; for example, they don’t really do dairy, so a Cambodian milkshake may very well have “a heavy back-taste of haddock.”

Sue’s moments of seriousness moved us. “How pretty poverty looks,” she said, “when you don’t have to live it.” She described a journey to a glacier, a place of pilgrimage high on a mountain, and likened the experience of silence and barrenness to transcendental meditation, to a loss of self, so that the gradual descent involved recognising objects like trees, colours, and the sound of human activity with something like surprise. Speaking of street children, and wanting to avoid the whole “white saviour” thing, she spoke about the only things she could give them having been an afternoon of uproarious playtime, and a few pairs of Converse shoes in sizes far too big for their feet. The humour of her delivery only made it more poignant.

Hilarity came in her description of teaching a few words of English to the women of a remote Cambodian community, without any interpreter to help them out. Sue had succeeding in teaching them how to count from one to ten, when she noticed that they were enthusiastically pointing to their upper torsos. She realised they wanted to know the word for breasts in English, so she taught them “Boobs.”

“Booooooooobs!” they all repeated in wonder and delight.

Then they began to point at their crotches, and Sue realised that they wanted another anatomical term in her native language. That was the moment when she went to pieces and ended up teaching them a non-existent word that sounded a bit Welsh. Honestly, Sue, what are you like! So there’s that, there’s therapy, there’s her mother, there’s her father, there’s her attitude to death, and there’s clinging to the back of a donkey at the edge of a thousand-foot drop, there’s a baby crying in the audience – “Ah, the sound of Brexit!” – and ultimately there’s a queue yea deep and yea long wanting copies of her book signed. That’s what it’s like with a headliner at the EIBF.

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“Is ‘the Left’ now an overwhelmingly middle-class enterprise?”

David Kogan: Which way now for the Left?
Garden Theatre
Edinburgh International Book Festival
2.15pm, 20thAugust 2019

reviewed by Paul Thompson

That’s the question I wanted to ask David Kogan. I’m a fully-paid-up member of the bourgeoisie and ditto of the Industrial Workers of the World trades union (yes, I have an acute sense of irony), and I wanted to know whether David Kogan thought that the Left today was a middle-class thing. “No,” was his answer, “but the policy-makers around Jeremy Corbyn are!”

I didn’t actually get to put the question to him during the event. I had to interrupt his book-signing to do it, but his answer shows at least two important things. That plenty of hands went up during the Q&A part of his event, so that getting a chance to hold the roaming mic was like entering a lottery. And that David’s focus is on ‘the Left’ in terms of the UK’s Labour Party. That is only to be expected, as he has been observing and reporting on the Labour party for most of his career.

The thrust of this event was to showcase David’s book, Protest and Power: The Battle for the Labour Party, and what he did for the first twenty minutes of the session was give us positively the most cogent summary of an entire book that I have ever heard from anyone at the EIBF. He is precise, he is analytical, and if his book is as good as his presentation, then it’s on my Christmas list. He gave us facts we already knew, facts we didn’t know, and facts we might have forgotten – among the latter was that only on three occasions did a Labour leader become Prime Minister by overturning a Conservative government (the Labour leaders in question being Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair). Among the facts we might have forgotten was that the sudden rise to leadership of Jeremy Corbyn was partly due to rule changes brought in by the Blairites to curb trades union influence. Among the facts we didn’t know, but might well have guessed when we stopped and thought about it, was that when he asked Tony Blair about his fall from grace, the one word the former Prime Minister never uttered was “Iraq.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s relative success in the 2017 election, which he nevertheless failed to win*, was followed by two debacles within the party. Firstly (sorry, I’m doing a lot of “firstly – secondly” today) the issue of anti-semitism. David could reveal that this wasn’t just something whipped up by hostile media, but that a minority of members or former members do or did hold some rather unspeakable views, and that the issue has not been properly dealt with, or perhaps dealt with consistently would be a batter way to put it. This subject could have filled an event of its own, and still not come to any proper resolution; it is very, very hard indeed to unravel, say, legitimate criticism of Israeli politics from unwarranted bigotry, particularly when a common vocabulary may serve to obfuscate. Secondly, a lack of clarity and consistency on our future in or out of the EU. There is a distinct reluctance in the House of Commons to back Jeremy Corbyn as an alternative to Boris Johnson, who heads the furthest-right Conservative government for generations, maybe ever; nevertheless, parliamentary convention is that the Leader of the Opposition should get the first chance to form an alternative government, should the sitting Prime Minister fall to a vote of no confidence.

David Kogan signing copies of ‘Protest and Power’ in the Bookshop.

Here are some sound-bites from the session:

“If the Tory party resembles the Borgias, the Labour Party resembles Game Of Thrones.” That was actually from Ruth Wishart, who chaired the event. A Wishart-chaired event is always worth going to!

“Is Labour a party of power or a party of protest?” That’s not a new question. In order to gain power, Tony Blair had to ditch socialism and back neo-liberal economics, as a result of which the UK has had right-of-centre government for about forty years. The question is not really a choice between power and protest, but whether the Labour Party can persuade voters that neo-liberalism has ruined the country and a left-of-centre alternative is a necessary cure. Discuss.

“Influence is not enough – you have to control the organs of the party.” See above.

“All the New Labour princes and princesses were parachuted into seats.” The phrase “New Labour princes and princesses” will stay with me! Thank you, David.

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Footnote:
*
I seem to be the only commentator who is prepared to mention the following two linked facts. Firstly that Theresa May was able to form a government not because she came to an accommodation with the DUP, but because Ruth Davidson ran a successful if disingenuous single-issue campaign in Scotland to persuade Scots who were against a second Independence referendum, that voting for the Conservatives in Scotland was the only guarantee of preventing it, and thus she magicked twelve seats out of what had been up until then a desert for the Tories. Without those twelve seats, May would have lost the general election by a Hielan mile. Secondly that the Labour Party’s virtual extinction in Scotland has been partly due to the SNP maintaining centre-left domestic policies. Had it not been for the first of these facts, we might well have spent the last two years governed by a Labour-SNP pact in Westminster. Discuss!

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What the hell is a literary prize?

Following on from my report on the James Tait Black Prizes event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and in advance of the forthcoming ‘The Politics of Prizes’ event scheduled for the afternoon of 25thAugust, I have decided to put together some more scattered thoughts about the scope – the limitations, in fact – of literary prizegiving.

What the hell is a literary prize, and what should it be doing?
I mentioned in my previous post that we who are involved in picking the books that make it through the various stages of a literary competition are the gatekeepers of what is considered to be literature. This is not a new idea, but nevertheless it seems to be one which we gatekeepers deal with reactively and not proactively. We react to clamour, both public and private, to include more published writing from this or that community or culture. We do not look sufficiently outward, and are therefore our taxonomy is our downfall.

My field of research falls within the general area of what I consider to have been the most important mass literacy event of the 20c, the post-WW2 boom in cheap, pocket-sized paperback books in America. These books proliferated in retail outlets other than bookshops. The books themselves – and I’m talking here mainly about works of fiction commissioned by publishing houses to go straight into print under soft covers – many of which pushed the envelope in niches and sub-genres, were completely under the radar of literary criticism simply because they did not come out in hardback. Thus they also missed out on being considered for literary prizes. They weren’t simply turned away at the gate, they weren’t even considered to have approached it. Yet sometimes they outsold mainstream books.

Now, a lot of these books could be considered ‘trashy’, or at best to have a value that is measured only with respect to their capacity for entertainment. But to ignore them took conscious taxonomy. I forget who it was that first pointed out that taxonomy is not a matter of gathering together like with like, but a process of exclusion (I think it was Michel Foucault, but if anyone knows better, please enlighten me). When we are asked to widen the field of our consideration for prizes, we are not being asked to include something but to stop excluding it.

Although my personal concern is to question the ‘Chinese walls’ that have been erected between the popular and the canonical, I am not making that specific argument here. Rather, I am using it as a lead-in. Because even when we ‘stop excluding’ something we are being reactive, not proactive.

We need to ask ourselves what do we even mean by ‘literature’. At present, certainly when it comes to prizes, we have a view of literature which we think we see clearly in front of us. It is plainly contained in a square. That square holds what we consider to be the published work that deserves our attention. If we see any other types of literature, they are contained in their own squares.

But literature isn’t like that. It isn’t even a spectrum with, say, dead white guys at one end and post-colonial literature at the other. It just isn’t that two-dimensional. Literature is, to appropriate a definition from Doctor Who, a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, literary-witerary… stuff (“Blink”)! The dimensions of this ball are probably growing – though they might be shrinking, who knows! – and the genres within it, which we tend to think of still as contained within their squares or separate little shapes, have boundaries which are both porous and leaky. They absorb influences from others, and in turn influence others. It is less easy to exclude a piece of work from a particular shape than we imagine.

Perhaps the organisers of literary awards should stop waiting to be lobbied before they include something. Perhaps they should actively look outwards now, on their own initiative, without being pestered by anyone to do so. What could they look at? What could they explore? I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive answer, but here are three suggestions.

Self-published ‘print-on-demand’ books.
Probably the biggest explosion in publishing of recent times has come from within the ‘blogosphere’ and from the internet platforms that host self-published fiction and nonfiction books in all niches and genres. Just as the mass of paperbacks of the 1950s were ‘under the radar’, so are these. The right to be an “Author-God” has been democratised, and far from being dead the author is very much alive, pace Roland Barthes (146). As a literary agent I know that somewhat less than two percent of all manuscripts submitted by authors to agents actually get published commercially. The author/agent/publisher process is, let’s face it, yet another gatekeeping system, and many authors have simply stepped round the gate and found a gap in the hedge. A lot of work published in that way may well be mediocre, but one has to admire the self-confidence of the authors who go to the trouble of taking this step.

However, some of these books have been very successful and have gained praise for their quality. They have obviously been crafted by writers who have put maximum thought and creativity into their work. Some will even have employed reading agents or editors to help them polish their work.

There, of course, I introduce another gatekeeping process – the editing stage. But what about books that have not been edited, maybe because the author can’t afford it? Is outlay to be a factor in deciding what is and isn’t literature?

I know a particular author very well. We have had many a conversation about why her work won’t be accepted by a commercial publishing house. It is because of her lack of education, and she acknowledges that. Her spelling, grammar, and punctuation are unorthodox, sometimes confusing; she can even choose the wrong word – “partition” for “petition,” for example. Nevertheless her stories are very imaginative, and sometimes her sales of a particular self-published book will be well into four figures. Should we really be excluding work that has a brilliance of its own but comes from a disadvantaged background, with that background showing through?

When text is not ‘text’; or when ‘text’ is not text.
In that previous example, I believe I have highlighted a problem with the taxonomy applied to literary prizes. We have a mind-set that has only progressed a short way from that of the educated and liberal gentlemen of the late eighteenth century, who examined the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, a slave brought to America from West Africa, and declared that as she was eminently literate, that proved that people of African heritage possessed the gift of reason (see Gates). To these gentlemen, the standard proof for intellect was literacy. They could not see that Phillis Wheatley would have been just as intelligent had she never learned to read or write; and if she was intelligent, then most likely so were any persons from the culture from which she had been forced away.

Scholars of Linguistics have, for a while, extended the definition of ‘text’ to include the spoken word. In privileging the printed word in our prizes, we have accepted, promoted, and perpetuated a definition of ‘literature’ that is based wholly on the culture of the North West quadrant of the globe, the centres of former worldwide empires and current commercial empires. In expecting text-creators from outside that quadrant, most likely from formerly colonised places, to conform to that definition, we have asked and expected them to maintain their colonised selves. Yet what about the storytellers and history-speakers from some of the cultures in West Africa, maybe from where Phillis Wheatley was uprooted? If the definition of ‘text’ now reaches beyond paper, printing, and of course screen, could we also look beyond the printed word for ‘literature’?

The future, and interactively experienced fiction.
In a presentation last week at the Book Festival, Jamie Susskind introduced us to the coming, and indeed present, world of “increasingly capable systems.” He spoke of the probability that artificial intelligence systems will become so ubiquitous and integrated into our very environment – even our bodies if we so wished – that the distinction between online and offline, between reality and virtuality, would soon no longer exist, and moreover that our children would not understand the distinction (Moore & Susskind).

Imagine someone moving through a ubiquitous ‘smart’ environment, interacting constantly through technology so embedded that they do not distinguish it from any other part of their consciousness. Imagine that in their interaction they are creating, from the affordances of the ‘smart’ environment, an ever-changing fictional account. That account is uploaded, clouded, and shared directly into the consciousness of others, who may consume or even co-create. How will this differ from the creativity of what we currently understand as an author? Will it differ at all?

In that speculative bit of sci-fi, I am merely saying that perhaps we givers of literary prizes should not be waiting to be prodded into expanding our scope, or in discovering what we might have missed, we should be imagining the future and planning to include what it will bring.

What benefit would there be to keeping things as they are?
It’s a valid question. The suggestions I have made above are not necessarily ‘killer arguments’ and they’re not really meant to be. They’re meant to question and to stimulate critical thought about literary prizes.

It can be argued that by focusing on literary fiction, awards such as the James Tait Black give impetus to the continued creation of a particular art form. Widening the scope to include, say, science fiction or graphic novels would, perhaps, mean their having to abandon striving for that particular excellence within a form that is stimulated and currently honoured by its fellow-practitioners in the Hugo and the Eisner Awards. Keeping competitions at arm’s length, for all the problems of taxonomy that would entail, gives the chance for excellence to be seen, to be recognised, and to flourish in discrete fields.

Keeping things more-or-less as they are would of course be an exercise in conservation, and in conservatism, but it would have to persist in the face of criticism of its narrowness, or at best of its piecemeal gradualism.

And what about fields for which there is no national or international recognition? Is there an equivalent of the Man Booker, but for self-published books? If not, who’ll set one up!

Are these ‘political’ questions?
I should imagine that as you have been reading this you have come up with arguments and counter-arguments of your own. That is good. I’m not the formal arbiter of anything that goes on in the world of literary prizes. I say “the world of” deliberately, because what I have been talking about is not something in the theoretical realm, it happens ‘out there’ in the ‘polis’, and as such is definitely ‘political’. I am looking forward greatly to the event on the 25th, where I am sure I am going to hear much that I haven’t even thought of while I’ve been drafting this blog post.

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Details of the Book Festival event follow at the foot of this post. I hope my readers will attend, if they can make it.

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Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. translated by Stephen Heath.

Fontana 1977.

“Blink.”Doctor Who. BBC, 9thJune 2007.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s Second Black

Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, Basic

Civitas Books, 2010.

Moore, Martin, & Jamie Susskind, panellists. “Politics in the

Digital Realm.” Spark Theatre, Edinburgh International

Book Festival, 15thAugust 2019.

Images with this post are either @Paul Thompson or in the public domain.

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The Politics of Prizes
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Sun 25 Aug 14:15 – 15:15
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square Gdns, Edinburgh

 RIGHTFUL WINNERS?

This year marks the centenary of the James Tait Black Prizes, Britain’s oldest literary awards. Does the list of winners reflect the greatest novels of the century? Two literary prize organisers discuss what it takes to win, and why some great writers miss out: Ellah Wakatama Allfrey was a 2015 Booker Prize judge and is now chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing and Fiammetta Rocco runs the Man Booker International Prize.

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