D. J. Taylor, a brilliant novelist, biographer, journalist, and critic, is one of our best 21st-century writers. His historical novel, Derby Day, was nominated in 2011 for the Man Booker Prize, and his biography of George Orwell won the Whitbread Award in 2003.
Now his elegant novel, The Windsor Faction, has won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History.
The Sidewise Award, which is given at the World Science Fiction Convention (LonCon this year, because it was in London), is not a prize one associates with Oxford-educated writers. Yet it has gone to literary novels before: in 2007, Michael Chabon won it for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in 2004 it went to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and in 1998 to Stephen Fry’s Making History.
And this year, in strange wrinkle in time, or do I mean in alternate histories, there was a tie between Taylor’s The Windsor Faction and Bryce Zabel’s Surrounded by Enemies: What If Kennedy Survived Dallas?, a self-published novel written in the form of a book based on a tabloid magazine. (Fans and detractors of the Kennedys may very well find it interesting: I wrote about it here.) Perhaps it won’t surprise you that Taylor’s style is more to my taste, but I also find it fascinating that SF is open to self-published books.
I have written about The Windsor Faction here and here, so I will only talk about it briefly. Taylor’s suspenseful, unputdownable novel explores the question of what might have happened in World War II if King Edward VIII did not abdicate the throne. In Taylor’s novel, the king’s mistress, the divorced Wallis Simpson, whom Edward married in real life, dies in 1936. And because Edward had fascist sympathies, a powerful pro-Hitler group forms what they call “The King’s Party” or “The Windsor Faction.” Taylor creates the details of a vivid 1930s atmosphere, and describes weekend parties, politics, and the workplace. Beverley Nichols, a popular novelist and garden writer (have you read Merry Hall?), is one of the main characters. But by far my favorite character is Cynthia Kirkpatick, a bored young woman living in Colombo with her parents, who, on her return to England, works at a spy-ridden literary magazine.
Since I am known for abandoning contemporary fiction on p. 50 (a practice I encourage), it is quite unusual for me to read a number of books by living writers. This year I have read five of Taylor’s.
What makes me read a living writer? I much prefer to read writers who are more brilliant than myself. To take examples from the dead, I might in a pinch be able to write a low-rent D. E. Stevenson (fans will diasgree!:)), but I could never possibly toss off a Barbara Pym or a Pamela Hansford Johsnon.
I’d much rather read books than write.
By the way, the Sidewise Award for Best Short Form Alternate History went to Vylar Kaftan for “The Weight of the Sunrise.”
You can read more about the Sidewise Awards here.