Hazel McHaffie

Orange Prize for Fiction


A desirable property?We’re probably all familiar with the kind of language estate agents use to beef up the attributes of a house/flat/hovel in order to sell it.

For ‘bijou/cosy’ read ‘cramped’.

‘Excellent transport links’ translates as ‘there’s a motorway and/or busy railway line right next to it‘.

‘An ideal purchase as your first three-bedroom home‘ is agent-speak for ‘the second bedroom will take a single bed at a squeeze; the third one will only fit a z-bed on the diagonal in a crisis‘. You know the kind of thing.

Manscript of Over My Dead BodyBut did you know there’s also a dictionary of kindly words used by editors who are dropping our precious manuscripts into the nearest bin? Thanks to author of 90 novels, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, who claims to have a world-class collection of rejection letters herself, for the following handy guide.

sincere – dull

frank – embarrassing

heartfelt – dull and embarrassing

ambitious – far too long

epigrammatic – short and senseless

gnomic – even shorter, and still senseless

robust – too much sex

cerebral – too little sex

niche interest – incomprehensible to normal people

authoritative – see niche interest

well-observed – autobiographical

lovingly observed – tediously autobiographical

well-written – over-written

richly detailed – horribly over-written

broad-brush – full of careless mistakes

authentically voiced – writer has no grasp of grammar

original – writer has no grasp of grammar or syntax

energetically original – writer has no grasp of grammar or syntax, vocabulary, plot, pace, dialogue or character

not what we are looking for – unpublishable

didn’t quite work for us – don’t give up the day job

Maybe after all there’s something to be said for the agents and publishers who simply state: ‘If you don’t hear back from us within six months you should assume your manuscript does not fit with our lists. We wish you success elsewhere.’ You don’t hear anything; you make excuses for the deficiencies of Royal Mail. Ten weeks after the deadline date you finally succumb to a terrible sense of failure. You even picture the said gurus scoffing to colleagues in their superior way about the drivel submitted in the name of literature which they are obliged to lift out of the slush pile and at least cursorily scan. You maybe throw a minor hissy fit. Or go into a spiral of depression and hopelessness. You maybe pack away your pens and paper for ever.

But truth be told, the people who issue these horrible but carefully-honed rejection letters have their own cross to bear. They live in daily dread of a) overlooking a masterpiece or b) utterly crushing the spirit of a writer whom they have never met or c) incurring the wrath of an agent who has the power to unleash the most beautifully crafted diatribe against the editor’s entire empire.

I’ve had a glimpse inside this world. Occasionally a writer lower down the pecking order even than me will request that I look over their precious text and give ‘honest’ feedback. The worse it is the more I personally agonise long and hard over what to say to them. I was so stressed and in dread of one persistent person’s reactions that I spent an hour calming myself in our local cathedral before meeting up with her.

Pen a masterpieceSo next time you get a coded letter from a publisher or agent just visualise the sweet revenge of your brilliant work going on to win the Orange Prize for fiction … the Man Booker … the Nobel Prize for Literature. After all, you know from my previous posts that a surprising number of famous bestsellers have been rejected many a time and oft. It could be you. All you have to do to prove it is pen a masterpiece and find a brilliant publicity team. That’s all.

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Jack is five years old. He lives in a tiny single room measuring 11 feet square with a locked door, Bath, Toilet, Wardrobe, Bed, Table, Freezer, Cabinet, Rocker and TV. And Ma.

Their only contact with the outside world is a skylight and the night-time visits of ‘Old Nick.’ For Jack, ‘real’ is their room and each other. Everything else is ‘TV’ or ‘Outside Space’ – fantasy.

But Ma has her reasons for giving Jack these distorted perceptions. She may be  young and traumatised by the horror of being abducted at the age of nineteen and incarcerated in a shed for years, but she proves to be an inspirational teacher, using the rudiments of life to educate him – egg-shells, scraps of cardboard and fabric, the degrees of light coming through the skylight, the spit they leave after cleaning their teeth.

Then a chance advert on TV raises questions in Jack’s mind. How come Ma’s painkiller pills are on TV? The pills are real. TV is unreal. Suddenly his cosy assurance is shattered.

‘How can TV be pictures of real things?

I think about them all floating around in Outside Space outside the walls, the couch and the necklaces and the bread and the fillers and the airplanes and all the shes and hes, the boxers and the man with one leg and the puffy-haired woman, they’re floating past Skylight. I wave to them, but there’s skyscrapers as well and cows and ships and trucks, it’s crammed out there, I count all the stuff that might crash into Room. I can’t breathe right …’

Ma’s explanation is memorable: ‘Stories are a different kind of true.

But after spinning her own kind of ‘true’ for five years, she has her work cut out disabusing Jack of all the myths and misunderstandings she’s implanted in his head to prepare him for a reality more harsh, more scary than anything she’s told him so far. Life outside.

RoomThrough Jack’s eyes we see the taken-for-granted world in a whole new light. Scary stuff. But sufficiently convincing for it to come as a surprise to hear a dispassionate perspective: ‘The despot’s victims have an eerie pallor and appear to be in a borderline catatonic state.’ Jack is a ‘malnourished boy, unable to walk.’ (As you can see, I’m trying not to give anything of the storyline away.)

My only complaint was that in places Jack’s speech patterns are unconvincing. The words seem to be jumbled for no good reason other than to convey his youth and confusion. They sit uncomfortably alongside his precocious facility with words elsewhere.

Otherwise I really enjoyed this book, Room, by Emma Donoghue. It’s unique, powerful and moving, and, despite its dark setting, it offers heartwarming homage to the triumph of the love between a quite remarkable mother and son. It fully deserved to be shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Man Booker this year. And you know how rarely I sing the praises of these contenders!

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