Northern Writers Awards: Do we really need a northern prize?

Sian Cummins

A new writing award is a chance for northern writers to make themselves heard – or is it?

Northern writers have a new place to pin their ambitions, and no time to waste. The Northern Writers’ Awards, previously open only to writers in the north east, are now inviting submissions from across the North – but only until the end of this month. The prize fund of £40,000 will translate into opportunities for new, emerging and established writers, with previous winners including crime novelist, Mari Hannah, and Faber New Poets’ Toby Martinez De Las Rivas. With a keen focus on steering winners towards professional success, the prize also helps local writers find a voice in a publishing industry that operates largely outside the region.

But does The North really need to be singled out for its own writing awards, as by ominous motorway signage?

But does The North really need to be singled out for its own writing awards, as by ominous motorway signage? The northern writing scene(s) are certainly healthy enough. In 2012 the first Blog North Awards highlighted the energy and variety of northern bloggers. Many well-known novelists and poets are proud of their residence, while social media bristles with emerging local talent. In naming “northern” awards, could there be a risk of “northernising” the region’s writers? Could there be disappointed expectations, or offhand rejections, of winners’ writing as characteristically northern? Then there’s the special treatment argument. Critics could cry positive discrimination and demand that writers compete on level ground.

Level ground, to some, means The South, and the south, to many, means London. For their supporters, regional prizes represent compensation for an industry focused on the capital. It’s not hard to find “take that, London”-style commentary wherever northern achievements are celebrated. There’s an inference that “London = no problem”, but that does tend to overlook places such as Exeter, Portsmouth and Margate which arguably suffer the same problems as their more northerly counterparts. And while London may house much of the publishing industry, does that really help new writers there make themselves heard in the melee?

Maybe it does. We’re not inundated with agents and publishers at northern writing events. It takes something special to attract key industry figures northwards – a major publication or prize winner, for example. Social media helps bridge the north-south divide but when you’ve only got a few words and a link to grab the industry’s attention, it helps if your news stands out. A major publication or prize win, for example…

Although we could worry about whether the north really needs its own awards, in reality there’s little chance of being stereotyped. New Writing North does not presume a certain “northern” way of writing; there’s no entry requirement for typically “northern” subject matter. Judges Simon Armitage and Pat Barker are based here and thus unlikely to read telescopically, either. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, just where you happen to live, now.

Pan-northern awards could introduce and link more writers, leading to more collaboration and shared exposure. Regardless of politics, the expanded Northern Writers’ Awards are one more thing that can help writers progress in a difficult industry. Awards, as Simon Armitage puts it, “can often be the difference between carrying on and giving up”. Do we need this? Of course we do.

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