The Astonishing Winner’s Ceremony Speech Made by Chris Cleave, Chair of Judges for the 2014 Prize

To mark the one week countdown until The Desmond Elliott Prize 2015 submissions open, we present to you the full transcript of Chris Cleave’s, Chair of Judges for the 2014 Prize, full speech:

Chair of Judges Chris Cleave speech“When Desmond Elliott wasn’t drinking champagne on Concorde en route to his home on Park Avenue, he was just an ordinary guy who lived round the corner from this little place, in a humble London neighbourhood called St James’s. I suspect that my fellow judges and I, as we learned more about Desmond Elliott, began to think of him as one of the most fabulous characters on the shortlist, just not very believable.

A few of you who are publishers and agents will have had stories like his pitched to you. Like Luke Skywalker, our hero is an orphan. Like Scarface, he burns with desire to be the greatest. I never met Desmond Elliott but in one mental picture I have of him he is Al Pacino, standing on top of a huge pile of Colombian literature with an enormous machine gun in his hands, and his forehead still bears the lightening-shaped scar from the curse that backfired on the day Voldemort murdered his parents. In another mental image I have, he was just a fabulously successful international agent and a publisher, just an average Joe who made do with this old dive as his corner shop.

Perhaps the least realistic thing about Desmond Elliott is that he really did exist. You couldn’t make him up – he came up, the hard way: he was completely self-made. And it’s a mark of the man’s big heart that he kept a soft spot in it for new writers. A novelist is self-made in the artistic sense, but few can make it in the world entirely alone, and Desmond Elliott created this Prize because he knew that better than anyone. All of us in this room owe him a pint. Of the best champagne.

My fellow judges and I would like to put on record our appreciation and thanks to the trustees of the Desmond Elliott Prize: Christine Berry, Liz Thomson and the extraordinary Chairman, Dallas Manderson. They have created an environment where the bravery, talent and flair of debut novelists is celebrated above all things. In every aspect of this Prize they have put literature first, and their deep love of the novel shines through.

As judges we were presented at the start of our engagement with a superb longlist of ten novels, brilliantly chosen by the administrator, Emma Manderson. This longlist was the result of her reading scores and scores of the best debut novels published in the year. The astonishing quality of this year’s longlist shows that the future of British and Irish fiction is assured. And we would like to point out that some of these novels were not submitted by publishers but called in by the administrator – including the book that we have chosen as our winner. That is serious scouting work and this is a serious prize. Year-on-year it consolidates its reputation as the premier award for debut fiction.

We want to thank Riot Communications for publicising the Prize with great skill and panache. It was not lost on us that Riot Communications would be a terrific title for a debut novel, and we hope that one of you will write it someday.

Finally I would like to register my deep appreciation and affection for my fellow judges. Isabel Berwick of the Financial Times and Patrick Neale, President of the Booksellers’ Association and co-owner of Jaffe & Neale Bookshop, were the smartest, most warm-hearted and most positive people anyone could hope to work with.

As a bookseller, a novelist and a critic we came at the novels from complementary perspectives and we learned a great deal from each other. We always put the books first, we brought no other agenda, we took our responsibility seriously and we hugely enjoyed the process. We did not always agree, but we always had the good grace to wait until one judge was out of the room before the remaining two slandered them viciously behind their backs.

Picking the shortlist was not too hard. We each wrote down our dream shortlist on bits of paper and passed them round like naughty school kids. Only one name was on all three of those pieces of paper, and that was DW Wilson’s. Competition was fierce for the remaining two shortlist spaces, but Robert Allison’s novel was loved by us all and found a passionate advocate in Patrick Neale. Now here’s how Eimear McBride’s novel was described in that room. “It is a masterpiece but it made me physically retch.” It was “like meeting yourself”. And most winningly of all, it was “like a bag of live foxes”. And apparently it is true that the judge in question has held in their hands both Eimear’s novel and a bag of live foxes, albeit not at the same time, and they know the exact feeling of both. We shortlisted Eimear’s book.

That was at the end of April and two months later, having all re-read the novels, we reconvened to pick the winner. This time it was difficult. All three authors on this year’s Desmond Elliott shortlist write with the confidence and flair that we might expect from veterans of the craft. In their brilliance and depth of character, these three books were a joy. For insight, originality and challenge, they were without equal. They would all have been dignified winners of the Prize and it was agonising to have to pick one.

In alphabetical order by author, then, Robert Allison’s The Letter Bearer takes us to a pitiless desert in which man’s nature finds no ordered society to disguise it. Described by my fellow judge as “Lord of the Flies, with grown-ups”, it deserves the same acclaim and close attention as Golding’s novel (which, incidentally, was his debut). Robert Allison’s premise is wholly original, his dialogue faithful to period, his emotional range tight, his prose consistently elegant. He writes superbly about men’s journey through harsh country that renders complex moral questions down to brutal and necessary decision points. If ever there is a book that deserves to go straight into the teaching canon, this is it.

Next in alphabetical order is Eimear McBride, with A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. This is the most untamed, most expertly crafted, and most moving human story we have seen in many years. Its language pulsates and adapts, disintegrating and resolving at will. It plumbs pitiless depths and soars to dizzying moments of redemption, only to crash back down again and again, each new fall taking our breath away and showing us how much there is to be lost. Eimear McBride’s novel stands shoulder-to-shoulder with The Catcher In The Rye, Lolita and The Road as a novel that some love and some loathe, but that has greatness few will deny.

Next is D W Wilson’s Ballistics and this is a master class, a great sweep of hard-bitten philosophy wryly and poignantly delivered. It charts the gulf between human beings, and the lonely expanse between desires and their realisation. DW Wilson deals in people who are congenitally unhappy and whose brief life on earth does little to console them. This almost flawless debut stakes his claim in the top rank of writers in English.

How can anyone choose between three such outstanding, and such radically different, debut novels?

Well, let’s take a moment to remember how we got to this point. We are here because the wonderful Desmond Elliott Prize has brought an intense focus to bear on a part of the literary landscape that is the most innovative and the most necessary for the future of writing, but which is also the most under threat.

Debut fiction is the bravest, most exciting and purest form of the art, but today’s forces in book retail are lethal to new talent. With margins racing to zero, publishers are much less able to take risks on first novels, so more than ever before it is up to the serious literary prizes and to established authors to seek out, champion and amplify the best new voices.

These three shortlisted novelists are now recognised for their achievement, but they are the exception. All of them have fought for years to be published. In Eimear’s case her struggle lasted almost a decade, and we have all seen that she was not wrong to hold out. I believe that established writers now have an unshirkable responsibility to raise up the next generation of novelists – to be an antidote to the shortsighted venality that seeks to crush publishers and their flair for taking risks. Otherwise the DW Wilsons, the Robert Allisons and the Eimear McBrides of the world will go unheard and – crucially – unread. It is up to us now to make the triumph of these three writers a rallying cry, and not the novel’s last stand.

When it comes to serious literature the various parasites are now killing the host organism. From now on I want to see every established writer, whenever they win a prize, or give an interview, or make a statement on Twitter, insist on mentioning an upcoming novelist whose work needs more recognition. Let this generation of writers give life to the next, or may we be damned as the ones who let literature be murdered on our watch.

The Desmond Elliott Prize is important, and this year’s shortlisted novels are important books. It was the misfortune of two of them to share a year with the kind of novel that is written once in a generation and takes the art to an entirely new place. In its technical brilliance it is peerless. In its characterization it is unbelievably powerful. In its storytelling it is masterful. It performs the seditious act that only the greatest works of fiction can perform: irresistibly it pulls you in to the story, leans close to your ear and whispers you something true about yourself.

Ladies and gentlemen, the winner of the 2014 Desmond Elliott Prize is A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride.”

Chris Cleave, July 3rd 2014, Desmond Elliott Prize Winner’s Ceremony at Fortnum & Mason