The true value of prizes for authors

Winning the Windham-Campbell Prize has changed my writing life. It came so completely out of the blue, too. When I first glanced at the email in my inbox, I thought they just wanted me to promote something to my writing students. Once I’d realised what it meant, it still didn’t feel quite real for a few days; I was almost embarrassed to tell my husband and family about it, because the whole thing seemed so improbable, exaggerated. The amount of the prize is so remarkably generous - surely I must have added in an extra nought. Did I have delusions of grandeur? I could hear the suspicion in their voices. It was the first prize I’d won - I got it before I knew about the UK Hawthornden. Well – in at the deep end.

And it’s already made such a difference in the perception of my writing, I can feel it. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so, but it’s simply true that many readers need these forms of public validation before they’re ready to trust a writer’s voice and books; the prizes are a form of passport for readers and critics, they smooth the way, they stamp you as worth taking seriously. They can’t make a reader like your work, obviously. But they open a door to the work and make good, encouraging gestures, inviting the reader inside. It’s all right: other people say they’ve enjoyed it in here. And prizes can set in train that magic word of mouth, that contagion of interest, which publishers long for and can’t quite successfully manipulate. Needless to say, a prize as generous as the Windham-Campbell also makes material life that significant bit easier. That’s very blessed, it frees up time, it takes away the nagging worry that goes with writing’s precariousness - will the next book be any good, will I be able to sell it?

But the precariousness is never just to do with money. A prize, like good reviews, helps a writer feel at ease with her own achievement, removes at least some part of the burden of responsibility for the words and the stories. They seem to be all right, you think; they seem to be working. They make sense to at least some of the people who’ve read them. These judgments - especially when they come, as in the case of the Windham-Campbell, from anonymous distinguished literary people - are immensely enabling and consoling. They take away a little bit of the fear of writing, the fear of failing. Not all of it. Without some fear, you could never write anything any good at all.  

But there’s something near to miraculous for the anxious writer when a prize alights on that writing which begins in such a private, fraught, inner space, and makes such a cautious entry into the public arena. It’s an almost improbable collision of inner and outer lives, the self and the world, hope and achievement. I feel very lucky.

Tessa Hadley is an author. She won one of the Windham–Campbell Literature Prizes for fiction for her novels Clever Girl and The Past (both Jonathan Cape).