A UEA graduate has been at the centre of a debate about the nature of literary criticism, after publishing her debut novel Ponti.
Sharlene Teo’s Ponti was released in the UK on Thursday 19 April, after its manuscript had won the £10,000 prize for the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award for new writers, presented by Ian McEwan.
Ponti begins in 2003, where two unlikely characters strike up a friendship in Singapore. Its focus then shifts to 2020 where things have not worked out how the protagonist might have hoped.
Writing in The Observer, author and criticist Julie Myerson praised the novel’s ending but took issue with Teo’s use of description, arguing: “If a more vivid, elastic and relaxed Sharlene Teo is hiding somewhere beneath all this knotty verbiage and MA creative writing speak, then I wish her lots of luck – and a much tougher editor – for her next novel.”
The review has sparked a debate on social media, with some authors and readers reacting to criticise Myerson’s tone towards a debut novelist, and others expressing their support for honest, opinionated literary criticism.
Speaking to Concrete, Teo said “I’d like the book to speak for itself and for readers to form their own opinions about it.”
However, Teo’s agent, Emma Paterson said: “It is vital that criticism engages with the work itself – not the creative writing course it has come from, nor the awards it has won, nor the prepublication endorsements it has been given.”
After studying Law at Warwick as an undergraduate, Singaporean author Teo graduated from UEA’s famed MA Prose Fiction course, before moving on to a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing. Her MA study was supported by the award of the Booker Prize Foundation Scholarship, the first of several scholarships Teo scooped.
Discussing the role her time in Norfolk played in the novel, Teo reflected: “UEA has been invaluable to my development as a writer. It supported me with a full scholarship and a fellowship; I wouldn’t have had the means otherwise.
“And beyond that, my MA gave me a community of fellow writers and the time and space to take my work seriously.”
Ponti is published in the UK by Picador, who will next year release The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal, another debut novel from a UEA graduate.
A spokesperson for Picador said: “The odd bad review is par for the course, but Ponti is an extraordinary novel which has been fantastically well reviewed elsewhere.”