Judging the Desmond Elliott Prize: Sam Leith

Sam Leith – 2017’s chair of judges – is the literary editor of the Spectator, as well as having a writing columns for Prospect, the Evening Standard and the Financial Times. He is also the author of Write to the Point: How to be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page. In this blogpost, he shares his experience of judging last year’s prize and his belief in the importance of shining a light on debut authors.

It’s a commonplace to say that, judging any fiction prize, you are comparing apples with oranges. So it was when I helped judge the 2017 Desmond Elliott prize, along with Kamila Shamsie and Iain Rushworth. Our shortlist contained a historical novel with a metafictional twist, the story of a teenager in foster care in 1980s London, and a novel that traced an arc between 1970s Manhattan and contemporary Berlin.

Our longlist was even more of a fruit salad but it was a fabulously toothsome one. These novels, different as they were, each had the vital spark of life: not just promise, but accomplishment; or, to put it the other way round, not just accomplishment, but promise.

The special value of the Desmond Elliott prize, and the pleasure in judging it, comes from the fact that you’re encountering talents at the beginning of their careers – and you have the chance to make a contribution to those careers. You know that however good the novels before you are, their authors will very likely go on to do still better – and the recognition the prize gives them will help them do so.

We felt that as a responsibility, but also as an opportunity. And I don’t doubt that this year’s judges will share that feeling. The excitement of being involved with this prize made judging meetings really feel like they mattered. There was the sense that we had the chance to make a difference: great fiction often finds a public on its own merits, but you can’t, alas, bank on it. I feel confident that Desmond Elliott’s legacy will go on making a difference for many years yet.