A year ago I wrote a piece for The Thought Fox in praise of the short story, as Faber published Sarah Hall’s arresting first collection, The Beautiful Indifference. Described by Helen Simpson (herself one of the most admired exponents of the form) as ‘skilfully adrenalised stories, precise and sensual, in which the scent of violence is a constant’, the collection went on to win the Edge Hill University short story prize, to be shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award and, last Thursday (22nd November), to win the Portico Prize for Fiction, making Sarah Hall the only person so far to have won the prize twice since its establishment in 1985. A triumph for Sarah, and for short stories, especially considering the competition: novels of the calibre of AS Byatt’s much-praised Ragnarok.
The Portico Prize, awarded biennially to one work of fiction and one of non-fiction, is awarded to writing that celebrates the ‘strong regional identity of the North’, and nods to the literary history of the region (the Brontës, Mrs Gaskell, the Dickens of Hard Times). Themed prizes are controversial, by some considered responsible for creating ‘ghettos’ of writers, whether grouped by ethnicity, faith, colour or gender – a criticism once levelled by Byatt at the Orange Prize and interestingly explored by Cynthia Ozick in the New York Times in her piece ‘Prize or Prejudice?’). So if the Orange Prize was founded on the flawed premise (in Byatt’s view) that a ‘feminine subject matter’ exists, does ‘northern’ subject matter exist?
To some novelists the notion of ‘regional writing’ is decidedly pejorative and implies a lack of engagement with themes or ideas of national or global importance; others feel that the sense of place in their fiction is utterly fundamental to its character. Eudora Welty told the Paris Review, ‘I don’t mind being called a regional writer. It’s the critic’s job to place and judge. But the critic can’t really have a say in what a writer chooses to write about – that’s the writer’s lone responsibility. I just think of myself as writing about human beings, and I happen to live in a region, as do we all, so I write about what I know – it’s the same case for any writer living anywhere. I also happen to love my particular region. If this shows, I don’t mind.’
Certainly in Sarah Hall’s fiction there’s a powerful sense of northern-ness as a discrete culture – an aesthetic, even – that is deeply embedded in her style, along with a rapturous feel for language and landscape and a fascination for the subtleties in relationships, carnal and intellectual, between men and women. The stories within The Beautiful Indifference take place in landscapes that range from a Finnish lake, sinister and still, to an African beach at dusk, to an overheated London in summer, to the fells and lowlands of Cumbria – ‘burnt-farm, red-river, raping territory’. But there’s a particular sense of separation, lawlessness and violence that is identified with the north of England throughout the book: the Slessors, the traveller family of the story ‘Butcher’s Perfume’, who dispense their own brand of terrifying justice, are ‘forged from the old rage of the north’.
It’s a theme that runs through much of her writing, most explicitly in the John Llewellyn Rhys-winning The Carhullan Army, in which a group of women in northern England set up a self-sufficient community in the Cumbrian fells. ‘Setting novels in the north, even partly in the north, I don’t think is limiting’, Sarah told the Guardian. ‘I think you can tell any human story in a particular place. I’m fascinated by the north, even though I know it very well. There’s something about it that I’ve never quite understood, and I think that’s why I keep returning to it.’ Clearly it isn’t limiting: she might have won the Portico twice, but she hasn’t gone unnoticed by the judges of the Orange Prize, the Betty Trask, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize or the Man Booker either, which would suggest that Richard Ford has a point: ‘I don’t really think about books as being “regional” or not. I just think of them as being either good or not good.’
Mary Morris is an Editor at Faber.