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Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Originality in fiction

Wednesday, June 11th., Cadogan Square, London.

Robert Bion told me yesterday that he had had considerable difficulty in getting into England. He had no difficulty in getting to Dover, but there he was stopped, and the people in charge told him he must go back, he could not be permitted to enter: - unemployment problem, - law that no foreigner must be allowed to take a job that an Englishman could do. Robert, who is no fool, pointed out that no system of warning people was in force, that he would have all his expenses for nothing, that Wembley was being advertised and pushed abroad, and people were being urged to come and see it, but apparently when they reached England they were turned back. The underling in charge listened, and was decent in manner and attitude, and then said he would ask his chief. The chief came and heard, and then said laconically: "Let him in." And that is how things are done. No official reason for "letting him in".

I have come across an odd book called "A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder", by James De Mille. It is a fantasy novel presented as a 'real' account, somewhat in the style of Haggard, or Conan Doyle, or even Wells in playful mood, though not so well written as it would have been by any of these. I assumed it to be derivative, but on investigation found that it was first published in 1888, and that the author, a Canadian, had died in 1880. He may of course have got his idea from Verne's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" which was written in 1863 and translated to English in the 1870s. In any case it is interesting stylistically as it moves between straightforward narration of the 'discovered' manuscript, and detailed scientific discussions of the content by the finders, including one avowed sceptic who asserts that it is certainly a hoax perpetrated by a fantasy author eager to attract an audience! There is additionally an element of what I take to be satire in that the unfortunate writer of the manuscript finds himself cast away in a society where death is the greatest good, wealth is frowned upon, and love is to be avoided at all cost; The greatest crime is to force others to take ones possessions!

Writing about books in the Evening Standard, having recently attended the presentation of  the Hawthornden Prize, I was reflecting on the ability of literary panels to reward originality. My revolutionary thoughts on this matter run thus. No selection committee of nice-minded authors and bookish persons can choose a really original work. Their intentions are excellent. They have a genuine desire to serve the Lord. But in their humanity and their righteousness they are apt to forget the warning of the writer of Ecclesiasticus: "My son, if thou come to serve the lord, prepare thy soul for temptation."

The Hawthornden Prize is a British literary award. It was established in 1919 by Alice Warrender, a contemporary patron of the letters, and named after William Drummond of Hawthornden. Along with the James Tait Black Award, which was established the same year, the Hawthornden is one of the UK's oldest literary prizes. It has been given annually since 1919, with a few gaps.

There is no set category of literature: the specification is for the "best work of imaginative literature". There is no implied restriction to fiction and poetry. Those, with drama, but also biography, travel writing and other types of non-fiction, have been recognised over the years. The current value of the prize is £10,000; young writers are especially encouraged.

Their temptations are frightful. The temptation to be correct; the temptation to stand well with a pernickety public; the temptation to favour an author whose ideals coincide with their own; the temptation to compromise in order not to have a hades of a row in committee; the general temptation to avoid friction and, above all, shock. The truth is that no book by a young author is or can be really original and strong unless it shocks nine people out of ten, and herein is the reason why no really original book has the least chance of acceptance by any properly constituted committee. Sad it is that this should be so. But it is so, and will be ever. The fault is human nature's and incurable.

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