Three years ago I was asked to judge an unusual literary prize, one which became more unusual as the judging progressed. The Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize is a £10,000 annual award for ‘a distinguished work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry evoking the spirit of a place’.
My colleagues and I had little trouble separating the distinguished works from the run of the mill, but when it came down to determining ‘the spirit of a place’ we found ourselves in an uncharted landscape of infinite possibilities.
Every worthwhile work of literature is set somewhere. If you cannot get a sense of the place, the author has failed and should not be on any longlist. But the spirit of a place…. that’s something ethereal, immaterial, beyond the remit of lit crit.
We settled, from a strong shortlist, for James Meek’s novel The People’s Act of Love, a story of Russian castrates in a Siberian wasteland that was so original in tone and place that the reader is forced into spiritual contemplation.
Last night, at a festive dinner at the Travellers’ Club, the RSL judges gave the 2009 award to Adam Nicolson for Sissinghurst, in which the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson restores their Bloomsbury-idyll garden in Kent.
The temperate beauty of the place and the prose could not be further removed from James Meek’s spartan narrative but, as the result was announced, I felt the prize and its definition deepening into maturity. The room was full of professional writers, and every single one of us came away with an enhanced sense of the importance of place in what we do. This is no longer an unusual award. It is one that cuts to the quick of what writing books is about.