Sunday, 17 June 2012

Making history

So it's off to the Borders Book Festival at the weekend and rubbing shoulders with the shortlisted authors for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. Who says you need good weather to have good fun at an outdoor festival? It was chucking it down on Saturday, rattling the roof of the Festival Marquee like bursts of machine gun fire, but all it did was imbue the sell-out crowd with a hearty dose of Blitz mentality. Rain? It's the Scottish summer, what do you expect?

I love the Borders Book Festival with a passion, and not just because it's in Melrose, the region's historical heart and a place where I spent four idyllic years living on the shoulder of the Eildon Hills, which the Romans called Trimontium. I was a performer three years ago, just before I took up writing full time, and I've never felt so welcomed, and at the end of festival party on the Sunday night the spirit of optimism, togetherness and joy of books and writing lasted until dawn. The organisers have made it one of the must-visit events on the Scottish cultural calendar. It's smaller and more compact and user-friendly than the megalithic Edinburgh Book extravaganza and all the better for it.

The Walter Scott prize is now the fourth biggest book award in the UK, with £25,000 for the lucky winner and it's the brainchild of the Duke of Buccleuch, who has a plainly heartfelt affection for his famous ancestor. On Saturday, the shortlisted books were introduced by Festival director Alistair Moffat and the brilliant John Sessions read an extract, somehow managing to give each of them the unique voice its author intended. In the readings, the quality of the writing shone out, reaching into the hearts of the packed audience who listened in reverent silence. It was a fantastic performance by a wonderful actor. When the applause died down, Jim Naughtie, a book festival regular, announced the winner - Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side - and the prize was presented by the Duke.

Later, Barry and his fellow shortlisters Andrew Miller (Pure) and Allan Hollinghurst (The Strangers Child) - the others were The Sister Brothers, by Patrick De Witt, The Quality of Mercy by the late Barry Unsworth, and Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan - took the stage to talk about the craft of historical writing with Jonathan Tweedie, of Festival sponsors Brewin Dolphin. It was entertaining as well as fascinating, especially when the lugubrious Dubliner read from his prizewinning novel - 'I'm only going to give you one sentence. Unfortunately it's a sentence that runs for a page and a half' - a rumbustuous, rollicking monologue that alternately tugged the heartstrings and had the audience chortling with laughter. Fascinating, because no-one on stage seemed to have a concrete idea what actually constituted a historical novel and one of them seemed genuinely surprised that anybody thought he'd written one. And that's the only problem I have with the Walter Scott prize: the fact that the definition of historical fiction is so enormously broad. The single hard and fast rule is that the book must be set more than sixty years ago (the sub-title for Scott's Waverley is 'Tis sixty years hence'). It's meant that the majority of the books shortlisted so far have been works of literary fiction set just far enough in the past to meet the criteria. They've all been wonderful books, but I doubt if most of their authors would have described them as historical fiction before they made the shortlist. True, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall bridged the gap, but the only genuine cheerleader for what I'd call commercial historical fiction has been CJ Sansom's Heartstone and for me there might have been an element of tokenism in that, because I don't think it's his best work.

So lets see a Bernard Cornwell, a Con Iggulden, a Robyn Young or a Robert Low making the list - or even, dare I say, a Jackson. Of course, you could argue that the quality of writing in the shortlisted books is exceptional: this is a prize that celebrates literary excellence and the reason mainstream historical fiction doesn't make the list is that it's not well enough written. Come to think of it that's why I go along to the award in the first place. I defy any writer of historical fiction to sit in the audience and not wish he was up there on the stage, and I come away every year vowing that my next book will be better, and one day it'll be me.