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Judging Britain's 12 best new novelists for The Culture Show

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Alex Clark Alex Clark | 10:04 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011

The wizards at The Culture Show are a kindly bunch; they know that reading novels en masse is a task made all the more pleasurable if it can be done in warm weather and preferably in a deckchair.

So last August, when I took delivery of my first batch of books to judge for the New Novelists: 12 Of The Best from The Culture Show, I was particularly delighted to be able to head for the garden, turn off my phone and start reading.

In all, there were 57 debut novels under consideration, and we read them in various combinations.

There were 24 books in my first tranche, and I couldn't wait to begin them. I've judged several literary prizes, including The Man Booker Prize, and that first moment - when you don't have a clue what you're about to discover - is always thrilling; but all the more so when the books are by first-time authors.

You won't have read any of the writer's previous books, because there are none; and you can't be influenced, however unconsciously, by reputation or author interviews or book reviews.

And there's always the thought that you might be about to get your first taste of a truly great writer of the future.

Alex Clark, Sam Leith, Helen Oyeyemi, Janet Lee and Professor John Mullan

After that initial period of reading, the judging panel had two lengthy meetings and an awful lot of email exchanges in between, before we finally got to our dozen writers.

The idea was not to find an overall winner but to establish a list of the brightest new literary fiction talent, at the same time as revealing the process of how such book lists come to fruition.

Those eligible for this new British writers' shortlist had to have written and published their debut novel in the UK within the last two years.

So with these criteria in mind the publishing houses were approached and asked to submit one author each, although additional writers put forward were also considered.

The chair, John Mullan, journalist and critic Sam Leith, author Helen Oyeyemi, Culture Show editor Janet Lee and I then whittled down the entries to the 12 we considered most outstanding.

It's safe to say we didn't always agree, but that's exactly the point of having a panel - fiction isn't something you can judge by rigid criteria, and a novel that elicited exactly the same response from every reader would be a bland creation indeed.

But I think what we were all impressed by was the range of work on offer - from comic flights of fantasy to tender love stories, from sharply imagined historical fiction to acute observations of contemporary life.

I'm very pleased with our final selection, but it's by no means the last word on brand new fiction - and I'm sure you can add plenty of your own favourites.

Alex Clark is part of the judging panel for New Novelists: 12 Of The Best From The Culture Show.

New Novelists: 12 Of The Best From The Culture Show is on BBC Two at 9pm on Saturday, 5 March, (World Book Night) as part of the Books On The BBC 2011.

Immediately before the programme on BBC Two are two Culture Show specials: A Million Books For Free at 7.30pm, presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon and The Books We Really Read at 8pm, presented by Sue Perkins.

Evie Wyld, one of the 12 novelists selected for the programme, also also written for the BBC TV blog on her experience of being filmed for the show.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    I thought it was a great program and I intend to read the 12 selected books. It was nice to see a group of literary eggheads do all the leg work for us and come up with their recommendations. I understand that once an item has been on the antiques roadshow and appraised by the experts, it then fetches more at auction. So hopefully these 12 books will see increased sales as they have also had the official stamp of approval.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the program. We had a tantalising taste from each book and its was also great to see and hear the authrors, to meet the person behind the book.

    As my home is already overrun with books I am planning now to buy an e reader and download the 12 books.

    This is the type of exercise that should be repeated again in a few years time.
    Its a great way to find some fascinating new writers.

  • Comment number 2.

    What a great programme! Blimey, something to think about instead of causality and the flippin' Lottery. Good on yer - now where's the list of books from the show? I've lost the one I made . . . .

  • Comment number 3.

    Hi Geeaye (#2),

    There's a list of the books on New Novelists: 12 Of The Best From The Culture Show's programme page. If you scroll down the page, it's just below the pictures of the authors.

    Assistant Content Producer, BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 4.

    fantastic show, is there anywhere we can find the longlist? xx

  • Comment number 5.

    I've just watched the culture show special on the selection of the 12 new books via the red button. Some of them interest me & I will certainly give a go. I can't agree with David Sheilds about the state of the novel. I am currently reading a review copy of Loisa Young's ' My dear I wanted to tell you'. If you want realism that will grab you by the throat then her description of the early days of reconsructive surgery during WW1 is unbeatable. This together with how war changes the lives & loves of 5 people, those at the front & those left behind. It is,in my opinion, jusifiably descibed as 'The most powerful book you will read all year'. There is nothing nice about it but the characters are well drawn & compelling. I would recommend it to anyone.

  • Comment number 6.

    I watched the show, but I flinch when I hear people in the literary business make a distinction between books that people actually read, and "literary" fiction. To me, fiction is fiction - just tell me a good story with believable characters that I can relate to. I don't want arty narrative tricks intended to make the writer look clever to the critics. That doesn't impress me. Move me, make me laugh - but don't show off.


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