Monday, July 6, 2009
SF outsider beats big names to £5,000 award
Chris Beckett sees off Ali Smith and Anne Enright to take the Edge Hill short story prize with The Turing Test
guardian.co.uk, Monday 6 July 2009 11.24 BST
Edge Hill short story prize winner Chris Beckett. Photograph: Colin McPherson
A social work lecturer with a sideline in science fiction writing has triumphed over some of the country's best known literary authors, including Booker winner Anne Enright and Whitbread winner Ali Smith, to take the Edge Hill short story prize.
Chris Beckett, who lectures at Anglia Ruskin university, was named winner of the £5,000 award on Saturday night for his collection The Turing Test, 14 stories featuring, among other things, alien planets, genetic manipulation and robots. Beckett said this morning that he was "still pinching [him]self" at the win.
"It was a very big surprise," he said. "Anne Enright won the Booker – two of the other authors [Shena Mackay and Smith] were shortlisted – so I thought I was very small fish compared to them ... I also thought that being a science fiction writer could count against me: a lot of people don't like it, or look at it in some way as less than literary fiction. It's a little blow for the genre, as well as for me – it might persuade a few people that maybe it's worth looking at."
Judge James Walton, chair of Radio 4's The Write Stuff, said that Beckett's win was "a bit of a surprise to the judges, none of whom knew they were science fiction fans beforehand". But once the judging process started, pitting Enright's Yesterday's Weather, Mackay's The Atmospheric Railway, Smith's The First Person and Other Stories and Gerard Donovan's Country of the Grand against The Turing Test, it soon became clear that Beckett's entry had been the most enjoyable – and impressive – read.
"One by one we admitted it," said Walton. "It was Beckett who seemed to us to have written the most imaginative and endlessly inventive stories, fizzing with ideas and complete with strong characters and big contemporary themes. We also appreciated the sheer zest of his storytelling and the obvious pleasure he had taken in creating his fiction."
The win is especially poignant for Beckett, as his publisher, the tiny Elastic Press, is in the process of winding up. He's hoping the win will mean a larger publisher might be interested in his writing. "At the moment you have to be in the know to hear about my books, and I'm hoping that will change," he said. His agent, he added, was "already on the case".
Beckett joins a list of previous winners for the Edge Hill prize – the only UK award for a short story collection by a single author – including Colm Toibin and Claire Keegan. He said the win would give him the time to concentrate more on his writing – the author of two novels, he's currently in the middle of a new story collection. "Recently I thought I should perhaps sit down and write non-science fiction, but actually I don't want to. I like the robots and the bits and pieces – they make it more fun," he said. "It strikes me that most kinds of fiction is about making up characters and plots, so why not make up the world as well – go the whole hog?"
Beckett won £5,000 and a specially commissioned painting by Liverpool artist Pete Clarke, also taking the £1,000 readers' prize. Enright won the second prize of £1,000 for Yesterday's Weather.