What a bizarre, brilliant evening. Star-struck literature students, star-struck literature professors, journalists, clueless yet enthusiastic university benefactors and general members of the public gathered together to applaud a controversial liberal economist. Only, you might say, at Warwick.
The event began with a stimulating discussion with members of the panel, including Maureen Freely and Iain Stewart; questions were open to the floor and the best question of the evening came from a venerable, military man who asked, very sincerely, whether the judges had taken the typeface of the books into account when considering their winner? Then on to the Mead Gallery, where the current installation art, Bob and Roberta Smith’s series of cheerfully aggressive, often political, graffiti, turned out to be almost prophetically appropriate. The Vice-Chancellor spoke briefly, praising Warwick and the prize, and then China Mieville, this year’s panel chair, took the podium to applaud all six of the entries that made it to the final shortlist. The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed Bishop Gerardi?, Francisco Goldman’s account of a criminal investigation in Guatemala, made runner-up. And finally the winner was announced; Naomi Klein for The Shock Doctrine.
That’s when the room went silent, for a split second, as China glanced to his right and suddenly it seemed pretty unlikely that one of the world’s top ten intellectuals (according to Prospect, anyway), had taken a plane to the Midlands on the off-chance of winning our University’s award. And then Naomi Klein, who had up to that point managed to blend in with everyone else remarkably well, stepped out of the crowd.
She accepted the prize (in the shape of a slightly unimaginative grey block of glass) humbly and spoke. Perhaps she took a little too long, savouring the opportunity to mock publicly a few enemies among the economists- although wouldn’t the Oscars have been more exciting if actors only did the same? But the atmosphere remained warm and she left to belting applause. A few of the more courageous students squeezed through to congratulate her personally on her win; the rest of us just hung around at the back and finished off the canapés until the kind University people began to herd the guests out. The Guardian, who must have had an inside man or woman, had already printed the story online.
It seems likely that Klein will accept the University’s offer of a ‘short placement’ at Warwick. With her achievements in The Shock Doctrine, and her earlier book No Logo, covering economics, politics, creative writing and ethics, quite a number of students will be in for a serious treat. In its debut year, this Prize is already beginning to show its benefits for all of us, and having been covered extensively in the national press, it’s only going to get bigger. The challenge will be that of keeping the non-mainstream and cutting-edge credentials it’s shown this year, and avoiding becoming just another (Costa, anyone?) big-money award in the literary calendar. I think we don’t need to worry so much about that one; the Prize is in good hands, at least for the foreseeable future, and so long as the organisers keep picking exciting judges (and the judges keep picking exciting winners) we’ll be seeing more and more appearances from people just as exciting as Naomi Klein. China also teased the assembled audience by announcing the theme for the next Prize, in two years’ time; ‘colour’. ‘Complexity’ was a pretty open choice of theme, but it called for a certain kind of similarity between the books on the longlist and shortlist. ‘Colour’ is far more adaptable; does it stretch to apply to ‘local colour’, the notion of ‘colours’ as national loyalties, race issues, or even the brightness of children’s fiction? And, considering the fact that this year’s longlist demonstrated that ‘complexity’ suited classically-formed works over experimental technique, there’s the tantalising possibility of art and literature fusion getting into the spotlight. It also, however, sets up for some more obvious choices; I’m willing to predict that a The Rest Is Noise-esque study of painting will make its way onto the longlist, for instance.
We’ll all have to keep our eyes open over the next two years, and stay vigilant- with the hefty gap until the next Prize, there may be attempts to market colour-related books as ‘the kind of thing that might win the Warwick Prize for Writing’. It’s up to us (especially the second-years and third-years who will be applicable to nominate entries for the Prize in two years’ time from the postgraduate course) to ensure that this Prize remains ours.