Amid ‘the ‘Low-Level Hum of Panic,’ the UK’s Young Writer Award Names Its Jury

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At least one juror for the 2020 Young Writer of the Year award says she hopes ‘we won’t see a rash of virus or pandemic stories,’ as submissions coincide with the contagion’s progress.

A shot from May 6 of passengers on London’s Central Line at Stratford Station. Image – iStockphoto: Marcos Casado

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Submissions Continue to June 22
As we mentioned on Friday (May 15), the competition between awards programs, particularly in the United Kingdom, can look as robust as that between authors and publishers. At the end of the week, we were announcing US author Bryan Washington as the winner of the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize for writers younger than 39. That program calls itself “the world’s biggest prize for young writers,” a claim built on Swansea University’s £30,000 purse for its winner (US$36,552).

On Sunday (May 17), what may be the Dylan Thomas’ main competition for attention, the Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, announced its 2020 jurors, styling itself as “the UK and Ireland’s unrivaled spotter of emerging literary talent.” It’s for writers 35 and younger. In terms of cash, the Young Writer of the Year program offers a £5,000 purse (US$6,044) to its winner, along with a 10-week residency at the University of Warwick and a year’s membership to the London Library, something also extended to shortlisted writers.

What’s interesting to observers, of course, is that this is the beginning of the 2020 cycle for this award, with submissions open to June 22. The Bookseller’s Ruth Comerford today (May 18) reports that Bloomsbury has acquired a pandemic-inspired picture book by Michelle Robinson with illustrations by Emily Hamilton.

What impact the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic could have on the work of younger writers in the hard-hit UK and Ireland may or may not be glimpsed in some early form with this program. Is there a relevant project being rushed forward for submission? Among the jurors announced by the Sunday Times, Kit de Waal says she hopes not. “It’s too soon for that by about 10 years.”

The theory of the time required for mature assimilation of an event so profound as the COVID-19 seems borne out by the UK’s numbers. At this writing, the 7:32 a.m. ET update (1132 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center shows the British caseload at 244,678, its death toll now the second highest in the world (after the United States) at 34,716.

Morning reports from BBC News focus on a particularly serious series of incidents in Yorkshire in which “mass gatherings” and undisciplined partiers in national parks and marketplaces, requiring police presence in at least 360 instances.

‘The Concerns of the Present Day’

Publishing Perspectives readers are familiar with the Young Writer of the Year program, which was on hiatus between 2009 and 2015, then revived with Sunday Times literary editor Andrew Holgate shepherding it back into action. Last year’s winner of this one was Raymond Antrobus for his popular poetry collection  The Perseverance (Penned in the Margins, October 2018).

To be eligible for this prize, which is given for fiction, nonfiction, or poetry by a British or Irish author, books must have been published or self-published between June 15 of last year, and June 22. It’s unlikely, then, that unless something has been produced quite quickly, the submissions will reflect the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, which is damaging the publishing industry along with most others.

Kit de Waal

As one of the four jurors announced this weekend, however, de Waal voices a cautious take on this unusual year for submissions, saying, “I’m interested in what people will do about the low-level hum of panic and how that will affect their writing.

“I’m hoping that we won’t see a rash of virus or pandemic stories. It’s too soon for that by about 10 years. I’m hoping to see something from the gut, something visceral, and yearning. I’m always looking for a voice that brings me up short in any writer, young or old.”

De Waal is a former Costa Short Story Award finalist and the author of My Name is Leon and The Trick to Time. Her first YA novel, Becoming Dinah, was published in 2019. She’s also the editor of Common People, an anthology of Working Class Memoir. She co-founded the Primadonna Festival and the Big Book Weekend.

Houman Barekat

She’s joined on the jury by Houman Barekat, Tessa Hadley, and Sebastian Faulks.

Barekat is a critic for the Sunday Times and other outlets, and founding editor of Review 31. In the announcement, he’s quoted, saying, “As a critic I enjoy the judging process a lot. There’s something incredibly useful about having to justify your assessment to the rest of the judging panel—it keeps you honest, keeps you on your toes intellectually.

“One thing that stands out for me about the Young Writer of the Year Award is the breadth of the eligibility criteria: it usually makes for an eclectic shortlist, which is very welcome.”

Tessa Hadley. Image: Mark Vessey

Novelist and short-story writer Tessa HadleyLate in the Day was released by Penguin Random House/Vintage in February—says, “Whenever I’ve judged a competition, it’s forced me out of my comfort zone, got me reading the fiction and poetry and nonfiction I might not have picked up otherwise, seeing slices of worlds unlike mine.

“This should be especially true of reading new young writers.

“I’m hoping for something that feels true and inevitable, expressed in language that’s as clean and strong as possible.”

Sebastian Faulks

And journalist-turned-novelist Sebastian Faulks echoes de Waal in a way, touching on something you can see authors discussing with each other in their online channels: can they focus, can they concentrate on their work in a world so deeply impacted by the pathogen’s advances.

“I’m interested to see,” he says, “if young writers can stand outside their personal experience and the concerns of the present day.

“What I’m hoping for in the submissions for the Young Writer of the Year Award are style, attention to words, the sense that even if it reads smoothly it has been ferociously worked at.”

The Young Writer of the Year program works with the British Council on its efforts to give authors retail and media exposure, and this is one of the prize programs administered by the Society of Authors in London. This is the second year of the University of Warwick’s title sponsorship.


More from Publishing Perspectives on publishing and book prizes is here, and more from us on the UK market is here. More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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