On Friday night I attended an awards ceremony at the Stationers’ Hall in London. Earlier that day, I had a makeover at the NARS counter in John Lewis. I told the sales person that I wanted to look decent for the event that night. By “decent” I meant not like the red-faced harridan I’d seen reflected back at me in every shop window on Oxford Street.
“What kind of awards ceremony?” she asked me. Writing, I told her, and she said that her sister was “training” to become a writer; she’d just finished a creative writing degree in Winchester, and was planning to write fantasy novels. “Not real life,” the sales person said, meaning the novels, I think, rather than the ambition.
All day I felt sick with nerves, and ashamed of myself, too, for wanting to win a prize. The story, “False River,” is very dear to me, because I wrote it after Sarah Doerries died; I wrote it for her, and about her, and it has more personal resonance for me than much of my other work. And, of course, I wanted the money that the prize brought, so I could pay lots of people back, and buy Tom Moody a new phone. This was the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Awards, and the sponsors are extremely generous. Usually the only payment I get for a short story is a free copy of the journal in which it’s appeared, so the notion of winning £30,000 had turned my head. It’s much, much more than I earned the whole of last year, from teaching and royalties and all the bits of writing I do for other people. But all six of us on the shortlist would have liked the money, of course, and all six of us wrote good stories.
And awards for writing or any kind of art are not just about the money. They’re a moment in the sun for people who may feel they live an otherwise obscure and shadowy life. I’ve been working on a long personal essay called “On Coming Home,” and came across this from Joseph Brodsky, in his speech “The Condition We Call Exile.” There are “too many writers around per reader,” said Brodsky. “And very few among those thousands [of writers] are … particularly good. But the public will read them, and not you, in spite of your halo, not because it is perverse or misguided but because statistically it is on the side of normalcy and trash. In other words, it wants to read about itself. On any street of any city in the world at any time of night or day there are more people who haven’t heard of you than those who have.”
All of us – me, Elizabeth McCracken, Madeleine Thien, Scott O’Connor, Rebecca F. John and YiYun Li, who won the award on Friday night for her fantastic story “A Sheltered Woman” – had felt the peculiar exhilaration and queasiness of standing in the sun for the past few days, during two evenings of WordTheatre events at Foyles where well-known actors read our stories aloud. We sat together, twitching and grimacing when our own stories were read, dreading the moment when the story ended and we were summoned forward to hug the actor and blink, with embarrassed smiles, at the audience. True to authorial form, we knocked back free wine and grabbed so many free Sunday Times tote bags we could have set up a market stall. Then we went out together to drink more wine and gossip. The time spent in each other’s company, and listening to each other’s stories, was the great pleasure of the week. We were all outsiders in London: Rebecca had come down from Wales, and the rest of us from overseas – the US, Canada, New Zealand.
All week I’ve lurched from feeling outside to inside to outside again. It was hard sometimes not to feel like an interloper on the shortlist, with no London agent or editor at the readings, no books on the sales table. But at the awards dinner on Friday, I was flanked by Simon Prosser from Hamish Hamilton, who published my story in Five Dials, and my good friend Deborah Keyser. Also at our table: Lionel Shriver, and Gary Dourdan, the actor who’d performed my story at Foyles. I spent much of the mingling time abusing my on-the-shortlist status by accosting people I wanted to meet – Colin Thubron, Ian Hislop, Joanne Trollope, and Richard Eyre, among others. Just in case I was feeling too much of an insider, however, my name wasn’t read out when all the shortlisted authors were introduced. Lurch, lurch, lurch.
This is what C. S. Lewis talked about in ‘The Inner Ring,’ an address he gave in London in 1944. The desire to be an insider is toxic. Trying to be “inside the invisible line,” he said, is impossible, because there are always more lines. “As long as you are governed by that desire you will never get what you want … Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.”
His advice was to “make the work your end,” and I try to remember this. The work is the thing, not the events or the awards or the dinners, not the rejections or the acceptances, not the reviews or the royalties. Sometimes I have a version of this discussion with students, or with people at dinner parties, who tell me that only fame and fortune count; anything less than public success renders you a hobbyist, a second-rate writer. Once, at a party during the Auckland Writers Festival, a British author asked me to confirm that another novelist at the party was “the most important writer in New Zealand.” He didn’t want to waste his time talking to writers who didn’t share his status. It was the inner ring or nothing.
Yesterday I didn’t feel disappointed about not winning. Mainly I felt hungover. But there’s another feeling there, awoken by listening to everyone else’s stories this week – and by listening to my own story being read by someone else. The feeling is the desire to get on with my work. I love writing fiction, and I haven’t had much time to do that lately – starting a new teaching job in Auckland, moving into a new place, working on the essay. I have the novel starting to take shape, and five stories towards a second collection, which perhaps no one will want to publish, but that’s OK: the work is the thing. That’s the feeling I’ll take home with me, to my real life, after the turbulence and unreality of the past few days. That, and a suitcase crammed with Sunday Times tote bags.