Caoilinn Hughes

On winning the Collyer Bristow Prize

First thanks go to my peers—Sophie Mackintosh, Danny Denton, Samuel Fisher and Katherine Kilalea—for writing such good books that it was an intimidation and an honour to be on this shortlist with them. Thank you to the judges of this prize because, to me at least, books don’t exist without readers, and it is absurdly, painfully easy for a book to go unread, unstocked in a bookshop, unreviewed. Unlike a painting or a sculpture or a piece of music, a book isn’t experienced by virtue of proximity. A book asks a reader to open it, sit down with it, to give it many hours, thoughts, feelings, imaginings, neurons. It requires an act of generosity. A book doesn’t take a reader for granted. Nor do I.

The London Magazine: thank you for doing vital work for literature. Here’s hoping you’ll review by next book! And thanks to Collyer Bristow for supporting this prize—in particular its open eligibility criteria, so necessary in these times of writers and academics having to go to the ends of the earth for scraps of work; and for the terminally migratory Irish! It means a lot that a law firm should champion the written word. It suggests the belief that words have value beyond the mercenary or the bringing of charges, and that they are worth following closely. Writers’ lives are ever more precarious and perilous in this neo-liberal vortex, such that this one-thousand-pound prize amounts to 9.5% of a professional writer’s annual income in this country. Of course, philanthrocapitalism is a symptom of failing public services, and a government throwing culture under the lie-inscribed bus.

For that sad reality, prizes like this constitute life support for literary fiction (which is simply to say fiction of the non-blockbuster variety) and prizes like this are vital for small publishers; increasingly the only publishers to publish art-house films and (Higgs forbid) subtitled films, to resist market forces, whereby books are products first, artworks fifth. 

When this book went into submission—a week before Hilary Clinton lost the white female vote—several UK publishers responded that its protagonist was ‘just too much’, ‘exhausting’, ‘too in your face’ and ‘hard to connect with on an emotional level’. Some would publish the novel if I could cut it off before the character leaves home: if I could make it a coming-of-age novel rather than a picaresque novel, or a social novel, or a novel of ideas. Juliet Mabey of Oneworld said no such thing. She only asked, hopefully, if I was Gael, my protagonist. Sorry, I said, nope! If I were, the novel would have been a bestseller. Gael would have found a venture capitalist to fund the purchase of 30,000 copies in launch week, it would have made the New York Times Bestseller list, which is self-perpetuating, and the rest would have been ‘meritocracy’.

But this isn’t a novel about a girl who wants to be rich. Quite the opposite. It’s a novel about the lack of room for ambition, or even wealth, if what it takes to succeed in late capitalism is to be privileged (and to protect that privilege) and to be morally adaptable. Gael becomes cynical that even the idea of living a good life is a form of self-delusion. While cynicism isn’t a flattering or romantic or bestselling human quality, surely it has something to do with where we are now, and how we got here: into the era of despair, with its infrastructure of chaos.

So thank you to Juliet and Oneworld for deeming this a mirror worth holding up, and to the judges for the same. Next time, maybe I’ll try to make a mirror that reflects us in more flattering light, maybe not; but any light at all, I hope, is better than none.

For more on the Collyer Bristow Prize 2019, read The London Magazine’s announcement here.

For more information on Orchid & the Wasp, visit Oneworld Publications.

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