Novel Competition 2008: women's and genre literature

by Peeter Helme

Novel competition 2008 — women’s and genre literature

Peeter Helme

If we compare Estonia’s literary life with that of big European countries, it becomes obvious how few awards, prizes and all sorts of supporting and patrons’ prizes there are — Estonian literature is small and so is the Estonian literary establishment.
It is therefore no wonder that the novel competition organised by the Estonian Novel Society still attracts keen interest today, thirty years after it was founded. It is also not surprising that the competition is more popular among younger authors. Firstly, it is a good opportunity for anyone with literary aspirations to submit his or her anonymous text to the jury. Secondly, experienced authors tend to avoid the competition precisely because of the anonymity requirement, not wishing to be beaten by ‘newcomers’. This indeed occasionally happens. For instance, at the three last competitions — including the current one — the winners have been new authors. The few experienced authors who have entered have, at best, come in third or made it onto the shortlist.

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However, this does not mean that the novel competition is merely a playground for inexperienced writers, where the jury has to struggle with hopelessly flawed manuscripts. It is, rather, like a treasure trove that yields unexpected finds. The winning entry of 2004, Sass Henno’s youth novel I Was Here, became a bestseller and was even turned into a feature film. Tiina Laanem’s novel Little Old Men, from 2006, also achieved huge popularity among readers.
It is still too early to predict what fate has in store for Milvi Martina Piir’s novel Thirsty Butterflies. In a sense, this manuscript is at a disadvantage compared with last years’ novels. After all, in 2008 the jury did not issue a first prize; instead, one manuscript came in second and two were regarded as worthy of third prize. In addition, two consolation prizes were given and two more made it onto the shortlist.
This of course does not mean that there was no winning entry at all. The jury merely argued that an award-winning novel at the competition should be truly worthy, because most readers will prefer it over others when choosing a book in a bookshop. The jury therefore thought it useful to compare the manuscripts with books that were selling well without any competition, or were acclaimed by critics - hence, the decision to give the ‘winning entry’ second prize.
Other, more important considerations naturally played a role as well. Milvi Piir — an active poet since the early 1990s — writes in a poetic and symbolist key. Her Thirsty Butterflies is a story focusing not on a character but on a place — the park in a small town. The lives of people living around it get entangled, to some extent. Still, a little something is missing in the book that would allow the reader to sympathise with the characters and their lives.
In that sense, the two novels granted third prize deserve their awards more. Birk Rohelend is not exactly a new author — she has twice successfully participated in the competition of novels for young adults organised by the publishing house Tänapäev. One of her novels received third prize in 2006 and the other won the competition last year. Both have now been published as well. It was, nevertheless, a big surprise to discover that this young lady, or any young lady, for that matter, was in fact the author of My Bovine Friend. My Bovine Friend is a nasty yuppie diary in the fashion of Bret Easton Ellis or Michel Houellebecq. Sounds boring? Actually it isn’t, because the author seems well aware of the dangers of repetition. The novel has a clever composition. The story ends with a surprising twist and, as mentioned above, it seemed most unlikely that a text overflowing with misogyny could have been written by a young woman. It is a pity that a novel with such an excellent composition is wasted on a somewhat worn-out topic.
Marion Andra, the other author who came third, dared come up with an even more overworked topic. She has also published two novels. Andra took part in the last novel competition, and her manuscript At Least… made it onto the shortlist. It is evident that the author’s writing has developed a great deal in the course of the last two years. The genre of At Least… is a pessimistic teen-diary, whereas Algolagnia is a carefully composed and developed, kinky horror fantasy. The main characters here are good old vampires. However, Andra manages to skilfully manoeuvre through the finer points of the topic so thoroughly covered by many, from Bram Stoker to Stephanie Meyer, and her vampires really are her own. They are free of clichés and credible. Even more amazing is the sensation you get while reading the novel – frustration, sickness, perversity to the bone. The descriptions are not too horrid or pornographic, but the atmosphere is oppressive and there has hardly been anything as disgustingly sadomasochist in Estonian literature before. The language of the novel definitely needs editing.

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The last recommendation is even more urgent, and concerns the consolation prize and shortlisted works. The problem is not with the translator Liina Lüecke — by genre her Autumn Mystery is obviously a crime novel written in a rather neutral language (a welcome addition in Estonia, where crime literature is thin). The novel by the musician Raul Kurvitz, titled Sacred and Dreadful Smell, on the other hand, is fairly good as science-fiction, but it is an abomination as far as language is concerned.
The shortlisted novel titled Cigarette, by the young author Robert Randma, is not exactly a linguistic masterpiece either. It contains stylish dialogues of teenage girls, but otherwise the descriptions of a soul that travels from one body to another seeking its true home are a bit wooden, and the characters and their speech uneven. A bit livelier is Lilacs without Lucky Blossoms by the Hiiumaa schoolteacher Helju Pets. The novel is about a single mother who is raising her children in the Estonian collective farm environment of the 1980s. The weakness of this manuscript is its tendency to veer into cheap melodrama.
Still, Lilac has all it takes to become a hit among women readers. And although Cigarette is rather dull, the author’s idea is quite good. Randma should definitely carry on writing. He has talent. The same is true of Kurvitz, whose crime story is set in a science fiction environment. Despite its brevity, the novel’s compactness can be compared with the worlds created by Dan Simmons. As Liina Lüecke has designated her manuscript as a ‘psychological crime novel’, in the future she might try developing the psychological aspects.

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In sum, the manuscripts were diverse and, although there were not as many excellent works as in some previous years, there were enough genres and novels to attract different groups of readers. We could thus say that the key words of the 2008 novel competition are genre literature — the science fiction and fantasy of Andra, Kurvitz and Randma, Rohelend’s ‘men’s novel’, Lüecke’s crime story and Pets’s chick-lit - and the domination of women. After all, the second and both third prizes went to women. In addition, one consolation prize was won by a woman and another made it onto the shortlist. Still, these details should not lead to hasty conclusions. The novel competition is always full of surprises, introducing something new and unexpected into Estonian literature.