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18 May 2023

The Power and Pitfalls of Literary Prizes: A Q&A with Diana Evans

In this exclusive interview, Diana Evans, Chair of the Judges of the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize, talks about the power and pitfalls of prize success, the importance of writing community and history, and offers advice to prize entrants and literary hopefuls of all kinds. The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.

Wasafiri: The literary prize landscape is often changing, from the demise of the Costa Book Awards last year to the announcement of the Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction. What are your thoughts on literary prizes? 

In a very crowded book market, they are a valuable way to get books and authors noticed, and do much to help equalise the playing field for traditionally marginalised work. Prizes are shouting their nominee-lists ever louder, giving momentum to a book’s journey and success – but I think it's important that booksellers continue supporting writers who don’t make it onto those lists, and that the authors themselves maintain their own faith in the intrinsic value of their work. The collective support of editors, publishers, agents, promoters, and bookshops, beyond the prizes, is crucial.

Prizes such as the Caine Prize, the Commonwealth Prize, and of course, ours, are contributing something unique to the prize landscape by springboarding what are usually writers' first publications and first taste of success. Our Prize – and Wasafiri – aims to seek and publish the best international contemporary writing, and each year, we get entries from all over the world. Our winners go on to publish their debut works and win further prizes. What, according to you, is the place and purpose for a long-standing prize like the Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize, which turns fifteen next year?

Prizes like the Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize that have a long history can create a body of retrospective work shedding light on literary movements and the trajectories of their authors. As time passes, the stature of a prize increases and thereby its worth in a writer’s career story. Prizes also give writers targets and incentives to help fuel their work, and, once nominated, a community of writers with which to network and find creative support and inspiration. This prize is particularly useful as it combines the worlds of media and academia, and so brings writers into engagement with both spheres simultaneously, highlighting new opportunities for publishing, study, or teaching.

Your own prize nominations include the Guardian and Commonwealth Best First Book awards, among others, and you were the inaugural winner of the Orange Award for New Writers. How have these impacted your career as a published author with a public profile? 

They’ve had a huge impact on my career in terms of the attention my books have received and the resulting sales. The Women’s Prize especially, with its substantial publicity machine, has brought my work to a much larger readership than it might otherwise have had. As a result, there have been more opportunities for events and readings, a weightier obligation towards the public side of writing, and this has been something to navigate amidst continuing to maintain a necessary focus on the writing itself. It’s very important that the writer stays grounded and prioritises the beautiful work. 

What are you most looking forward to reading when it comes to this year’s prize entries? What themes or forms would most stand out to you? 

I’m hoping to discover new writing that fizzes and leaps on the page, that is interested in its own rhythm and possibilities for image and flight. I like playfulness in writing, and good strong characters, and compelling, intricate psychology. In terms of themes, if the writing is strong enough I can pretty much be absorbed into any subject area, within reason! Theme is not something I look for unless I’m doing research, though I do believe that writing should engage with the world, however symbolically. 

What advice would you offer to writers at the start of their careers? How can one deal with being celebrated but also with the inevitable setbacks and rejections? 

Expect rejection. When it comes, use it as a galvaniser and reinforcer of intention. At all costs, stick to your own instinct and stay in your writing power. When the world turns towards you in praise, don’t listen too intently. When it turns away from you, continue on your course. Keep writing no matter what. And it's good to have a long-term masterplan of what you want to achieve.

What three books being published in 2023 are you most looking forward to reading, and why? 

Guy Gunaratne’s Mister, Mister – looking forward to more from this brilliant writer.

Louisa Hall’s Reproduction – motherhood, Mary Shelley, and Frankenstein: sounds very interesting.

Khashayar J Khabushani’s I Will Greet the Sun Again – exploring the innards of an Iranian-American family, the subject matter speaks to me.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. To have your work considered by Diana Evans and our judging panel, submit here

Photo Credit: Charlie Hopkinson

Diana Evans is the author of the novels A House for Alice, Ordinary People, The Wonder and 26a, which was the inaugural winner of the Orange Award for New Writers.
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