Taking stock at the longlist stage of the inaugural award, there’s much to celebrate but no room for complacency, reports The Guardian on the UK’s Polari literary groups new awards.
The literary salon Polari was founded by the novelist and journalist Paul Burston in 2007. After writing several successful novels, all with gay themes, he had still never been invited to a mainstream literary festival, so he created his own showcase.
From the start, Polari aimed to promote alternative voices: the ones drowned out and pushed aside by the mass market, three-for-two world of traditional literary promotion. At Polari, unpublished poets rubbed shoulders with garlanded authors; veterans met newbies; legends dropped in to see what all the fuss was about. The cabaret vibe was there from the start; writers have stripped off, dragged up, sung and played the ukulele. One memorable night, Susie Boyt passed around Judy Garland’s hat and let people try it on.
One day I said idly to Paul in an email, "You know, there should really be a Polari prize". If it had been left to me, that would have been that. But by the end of the day, the indefatigable salonista had set it up, got the Southbank Centre on board and asked me to be a judge. Over the next week or so a small team refined the idea of the prize. There was, we agreed, no point in making it a prize for someone’s sexuality. You really don’t need to be gay to meet the criteria. Nor do you need to be British.
We decided that already prominent gay authors don’t need to be brought to readers’ attention, so we determined that the prize should focus on new authors. There’s no upper age limit, as there is for many a debut prize. It’s not a novel prize – there are plenty of those already. The formula we hit upon is "a work of poetry, prose, fiction or non-fiction which best explores the queer experience", and is published in the UK in English. The prize is also open to self-published work; in a cautious and repetitive publishing climate, too many authentic voices are being marginalised for us to do the same.
As anyone who has judged a prize will tell you, the judging process is an excellent chance to take the literary temperature. So what has the process taught us in the first year?
The main thing is that the prize is clearly desperately needed. It’s only the first year, but we were still initially disappointed that there seemed to be so little qualifying material out there. At first it seemed as though we would not even have enough books to stretch out into a longlist. But gradually word spread, entries began to appear, and the ardent debate among judges began.
There is cause for celebration in the state of gay writing, but no room for complacency. We found energy and authenticity aplenty, but frequently a distinct lack of polish. Self-expression can only go so far; some people wrote as if putting down the first thing that entered their minds was good enough. Others wrote as if they never read anything longer than tweets. There were novels composed of jumbles of cliches attached to thin characters (especially the "fag hag" stereotype), books that read as though they’d never been looked at by any other person before we got to them. Yet even the least skilful had something to offer; some still, quiet voice deep within that hadn’t quite been given the chance to live and breathe. We were grateful for all the entries and say to everyone, keep on! (But remember to revise.)
Our longlist is certainly varied; some might say variable. Some of these authors sprang fully-formed, with work of considerable accomplishment and flair. They need no "gay" or "queer" tag and can already hold their own with established literary writers. Others are still at the promising stage, with visible flaws compensated by flashes of skill or the craziness born of just not giving a damn. The best give you that shiver of strangeness and originality; all of them amused, provoked and moved us.
To mention just a few, London Triptych weaves a spell around three gay lives, touching across time; Homo Jihad, with its love-affair across cultural boundaries set during the 7/7 bombings is frank and fierce, and could not be more topical. C’est La Vie, by an author born in 1939, is a sharp and pithy look at tangled gay lives outside the capital. In Love Hope & High Heels we found a fresh and wistful new poetic voice. Children of the Sun is an exhilarating and sometimes horrifying look at the subculture of gay skinheads in the 70s and 80s.
Just as the Orange prize has reinvigorated women’s writing, so we hope the Polari prize will give the industry confidence in new queer voices. And that next year there’ll be even more entries.
The shortlist will be announced on September 19.