Observer/Burgess Prize: Lara Feigel on Judging the Prize
I am delighted to be judging the Anthony Burgess prize. At a time when the arts pages in many of our newspapers are under threat, it seems doubly important to celebrate the role of arts journalism both as a necessary tool in enabling the circulation of books, pictures and films and as an art form in itself.
I have written book reviews since Robert McCrum generously sent me home with a book after I’d visited him at the Observer offices in 2008. I was a PhD student, more used to writing ten thousand word chapters than one thousand word articles (‘usually you’d still be clearing your throat,’ he said). So I was apprehensive about trying to squash a whole book into a few paragraphs but excited about the chance to speak directly to other curious readers. The book was Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End and, starting it on the train home, I responded passionately to it from the opening page. Here was a woman talking about sex and death with a candour I’d rarely come across in contemporary writers. I knew immediately what I wanted to say; I wanted to celebrate her courage as directly as possible. I found that once I started it was easy to compress what I thought. I just wrote what seemed most vital to me, and left the reader to discover the rest.
After that, each month there was an exciting trip to the Observer offices to choose a book from the shelf. I didn’t know how lucky I was, to have begun so easily and to be given so much choice. Not many literary editors work like that now, preferring to keep a tighter control and to use published writers. Over the years since then, as I’ve reviewed more widely, I’ve found writing literary journalism one of the most enjoyable aspects of my working life. There’s the pleasure in getting the cheques: in that sense that those hours spent reading and writing have bought in a tangible amount of money. But more importantly, there’s a pleasure in bringing the shadowy understanding of words and people that I’ve developed through writing my books to bear in so direct and immediate a way.
As an academic, I have sometimes worried that much of what I and my colleagues write is composed of obfuscating language, published in inaccessible places, and destined to reach a small audience of peers. Writing reviews there can be no doubt that I am in contact with readers. When I am championing books that I have loved, it is gratifying to feel I’m in some small way contributing to finding readers for those books. This gives me a sense of urgency, making me feel that I need to find a way to say as precisely as I can what I have thought and felt as I’ve responded to a book. And I think this gives me confidence to write my books with a similar directness to my journalism. Writing to a tight word count is also a way to discover the value of every word or hundred words. You learn to hedge less, because it wastes words, and you learn to strip your argument to its skeletal core.
So how wonderful to have come full circle and to be judging a prize on behalf of the Observer. This prize will give us a chance to celebrate arts writing at a time when it’s under threat and will give the winners in their turn a chance to develop a public platform to hone the writing voice.