In 2004 the novelist Tony Saint lamented that he was not even the fifth best novelist in the village of Waverton after his first novel had failed to reach the shortlist for the annual Waverton Good Read Award.
Never heard of the WGRA? You are not alone. A little history, then. A family doctor in a village in France decided it might give his patients something to think about beyond their ailments if he got them all reading and voting on the latest novels. So Le Prix De La Cadière d’Azure was born and although the prize is now discontinued it inspired enterprising people in the village of Waverton (pop. 2000) in Cheshire, UK, to do the same.
Publishers are invited to send debut novels by British authors to be read by dozens of villagers who create a long list, then a short list and then – voila – the winner. It’s one of the few literary prizes run by readers and is now in its twelth year. Previous winners have included Mark Haddon for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Maria Lewycka for A History of Tractors in Ukrainian. There are also one or two winning authors that you’ve never heard of like … ahem … myself, for The Ghosts of Eden. The Waverton win came and went but then came calamity: my publisher ceased trading and my literary agent changed career.
Despite the collapse of my marketing support, I was delighted that out there, beyond the baying and smog of the city, the steady readers of rural England had liked my novel. In the villages of my home patch it was all bouquets and elderflower champagne. Deep in the rural county of Rutland, in mink-and-manure Manton, the villagers filled the village hall for my author talk and in Kibworth in Leicestershire the effervescent owner of the Kibworth Bookshop corralled locals into the pub for a book group evening over gin and beer. In tiny Arnesby, where thatch is as rampant as roses, I fielded questions that good family folk really want to know from an author, such as what his mother thinks of the swearing in his novel. In book groups in Knighton, a village long ago swallowed up by Leicester, we drank glass after glass of wine until we’d all forgotten why we were sitting there with a novel in our laps. In Woodhouse Eves, retirement village for philosophers it seemed … I was probably out of my depth. Nevertheless, I was flattered and grateful for those evenings with readers.
They say that the British comedian Norman Wisdom was big in Albania when he was unknown elsewhere and I like to fantasise that I was big in the village once.
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