On 3rd April, I was thrilled and surprised to find that my debut novel The Letter Bearer had been included on the longlist for the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize. Thrilled because of the calibre of the other titles on the list (several of which are already award winners), and surprised because as a first-time novelist one doesn’t expect to receive that level of validation and support from one’s peers. The fact is that writing a novel is an intimidatingly lonely business and it’s not easy to put faith in your own judgements. What a relief then – and what a reward – to discover that the critical perception of the book marries with your intentions, and that those decisions you took might after all have been the right ones.
Not that the second-guessing ever really stops – which is why most writers loathe reading their own novels once in print! Being nominated for a prize also has the effect of making you ponder exactly what character of book it is that you’ve written. With The Letter Bearer I didn’t consciously set out to write a ‘literary’ novel at all, having never been overfond of the supposed distinction between literary and popular fiction. The novels I’d read as a boy – and which originally inspired me to want to become a writer – were never compartmentalised in such a way, and generally managed to blend literary concerns with populist appeal. So the kind of novel I wanted to write was not only one that would allow me to explore the ideas that interested me – moral responsibility, guilt as a dissociative complex, the desire for personal reinvention – but one that would captivate in its storytelling, and which would have characters who would stay with the reader beyond the page. Exactly the same kind of novel I would want to read myself.
But at the same time I was aware that some of the decisions I was making might limit the book’s accessibility. Present tense narration; a highly individual and idiosyncratic prose voice; a small number of only male characters: all of these were choices that I felt were essential to realising my vision of the novel. But all were elements that I suspected might make it harder for the book to secure a wide readership. In the end, I decided that it wouldn’t be possible to compromise, that for better or worse the story had dictated its own framework and that I had to be true to it.
And this, I think, is what the prize recognises: that a novel should be judged on its own merits, and independently of any external factors that determine its eventual fate in the market. And it’s precisely this endorsement from the literary community that excites the most. Because from this springs confidence; the confidence to push forward in a career, and to make equally bold and uncompromising choices with future projects.
The Letter Bearer by Robert Allison is out now from Granta Books.