All of you out there sounding off about the tweetification of English can relax. The 2012 Bodley Head/FT non-fiction Essay Prize, for writers aged 35 or under, yielded a harvest of essays so rich in imaginatively chosen subject matter and in spirited style that there can be no doubt that long-form non-fiction is very much alive and kicking. Somewhere between the expansiveness of the blogosphere with its indulgence of loose, spontaneous free association, and the straitjacket of the strict-deadline column, the essay as an art of written thought survives and flourishes. Hazlitt and Orwell can stop revolving in their tombs.
Some 400 submissions were received, in a wide range of voices from whimsically informal (a musing on scarecrows) to the sternly tutorial (what’s the point of foreign correspondents?). But all were stamped with the distinctive tone of their authors. The strongest followed the models of the classic essayists by beginning with a glimpse of the concrete (in both senses in the case of Enver Hoxha’s recycled Albanian bunkers) and moving outwards to bigger, deeper meditations on the human condition.
In the spirit of the greats, nothing, especially food writing, was off the table. One of the most beguiling essays was the third-placed piece, by Frances Leech, which followed a day in the life of an apprentice baker in a tiny Japanese-owned Parisian patisserie who was acquiring, simultaneously, a working knowledge of idiomatic Japanese and the techniques for perfect millefeuille.
The judges agreed, after much sifting, that there were two essays that were nothing short of brilliant examples of the art, albeit executed in such different literary tones, colours and moods that comparison became not just difficult but painfully invidious.
The ranking was made still more difficult by the fact that both essays engaged with matters of real seriousness – the selective nature of military memory and the arbitrary obsessions of the contemporary literary canon, but did so with delicately thoughtful elegance, and through two completely compelling pieces of non-fiction narrative.
Raghu Karnad’s “Everybody’s Friend” is a poignant pilgrimage to the military grave of a great-uncle, fallen defending the obsolescent Raj against the oncoming army of imperial Japan. The most brutal fighting unfolded on the unforgiving northeast Indian border with Burma, and Karnad takes himself and the reader deep into Nagaland to find the war graves of Imphal. There he broods without heavy reproach but with stoical sorrow on the marginalisation of memory offered to Indian troops who, in the authorised epic of Indian independence, fought on the “wrong” side for their imperial masters while the much thinner ranks of the Indian National Army, Subhash Chandra Bose’s fighters, have been accorded the rites and respects of freedom fighters.
Hedley Twidle’s puckish account of stalking the South African writer JM Coetzee on page and in the halls of academe to which, in the end, the judges awarded the laurels is a tour de force of literary doppelgänger comedy: by turns ruefully self-mocking, seriously prosecutorial, and somehow darkly faithful to both its self-consciously evasive subject and his increasingly desperate pursuer. Comparisons with Nicholson Baker’s wonderfully futile courtship of Updike – U and I (1991) – or even Hazlitt’s savage put-down of his quarry, the aged, sententious Coleridge, are not, I promise, far-fetched. Watch out for Twidle (a name you are unlikely to forget) for, mark my words, you’ll be reading a lot of his.
What, in the end, was so heartening, for this judge anyway, was to discover in an age where the disposable and the instantaneous seem to rule, essays of sustained power that call for our complete and undivided attention and reward it with as much pleasure as illumination. Though our media are baggy with pedestrian generalisations and prose that plods along in leaden boots, we have plenty of young writers whose work can dance. That’s not such a bad present to take with us into the uncertain winter of another new year.
The winning essay and two runners-up will be published as free digital shorts by the Bodley Head in January 2013
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor and a member of the Bodley Head/FT judging panel. His essay ‘Why I Write’ is at www.ft.com/BodleyHeadFTCompetition