At the Jewish Quarterly’s Wingate Book award, which I judged in 2008, last night’s winner was a rank outsider. Against a field which included Jackie Wullschlager’s outstanding biography of Marc Chagall and Zoe Heller’s straight-to-Hollywood novel, The Believers, the prize went to the late Fred Wander for a Holocaust memoir, The Seventh Well.
It was the second award bash I attended in three nights and it set me thinking again about the value of small awards against the eye-grabbing razzamatazz of the Booker, the Costa and their like. The RSL Ondaatje prize set us thinking about the importance of a sense of place in a work of literature. The JQ Wingate goes to a book that ‘stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern among a wider reading public’.
It is a rather loose definition, and one that set us debating fiercely last year before giving the prize to the Israeli micro-novelist Etgar Keret, a genuine original. Where small awards score for me against the big guys is in their focus on aspects of writing rather than a one-size-fits-all criterion of excellence – most commonly resulting in a compromise.
If Julie Burchill, Will Skidelsky and Francesca Segal, the Wingate judges, think that Wander is of greater Jewish concern than Chagall, that’s a big statement. It puts Fred among my must-reads for the month. More prizes, please, say I.