Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Prize Idiocy by Sarah Bower

The culture of literary prizes

There are many oddities and anomalies in the writer’s life, not least the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the gibbering lunatic hunched over her keyboard in her pyjamas at three in the afternoon, surrounded by mugs of cold tea and biscuit crumbs (oh, and don’t you just yearn for the days when it was whisky dregs and fag ends!), and that poised person in front of the microphone at some awards dinner, clutching flowers and svelte in her little black dress and kitten heels. Of course, the writer’s life is much like anyone else’s in many ways. Writers pay taxes, go to the supermarket, forget to feed the cat, struggle with their children’s maths homework, put up shelves, bake cakes, blow up car tyres… You get the picture. But the gibbering in pyjamas and the whole flowers/podium/ little black dress thing are the extremes, and, as a fiction writer, I deal in extremes, even when they are of the silent screaming kind.

Silent screaming might be said to epitomise my attitude to literary prizes. There will be those among you who will attribute this to the taste of sour grapes in my mouth. I have not won any literary prizes of note, and I am under no illusions about my chances of doing so – I’m a woman, for starters, and I didn’t go to Oxbridge. But you would be wrong. I would not want to win a major literary prize. In fact, I would like to think I would have the strength of mind to put my money where my mouth is and refuse to allow my books to be submitted to any prize committees. This is not to imply criticism of those writers whose books do win prizes. I count several among my acquaintance who have won major prizes, and I am delighted for them. It brings them deserved recognition and even more deserved boosts to their bank balances. Their success, however, and my friendship, do nothing to diminish my profound discomfort with this particular aspect of the writer’s life.

I happened to be brunching recently with a group of friends from various walks of literary life and mentioned my intention to write about the ‘problem’ of literary prizes. Immediately, an enthusiastic debate developed – about the traditional profile of the Man Booker winner (white, male, middle class, privately educated, Oxbridge), about whether or not the Baileys still has a place in the world now Hilary Mantel wins the Man Booker every other year, the effects on the prize-winning demographic of American and post-colonial writers (whom some might see as one and the same…) A crime writer among us stuck in her Golden Dagger on behalf of prizes for genre novels. Another parried with the suggestion that literary fiction is surely just another genre and that anyway, it’s all meaningless and imposed on the amorphous population of bookshops by publishers’ marketing departments, not to mention by Amazon and whatever terrifyingly hilarious algorithm ‘personalises’ purchasers’ pages. ‘if you liked The Luminaries, you might enjoy Astrology, Karma and Transformation: Inner Dimensions of the Birth Chart . It was with some relief we shifted to less controversial topics like Islamic extremism and freedom of speech.

Our conversation both missed my point entirely and reinforced it. Literary prizes are divisive and misleading. Their existence promotes not so much the joys of fiction and poetry as the horrors of literary prizes. You have only to look at the eligibility criteria for the Man Booker or the Baileys to understand how the prize culture perpetuates itself. In both cases, if your publishing house has had previous winners, you can submit more titles for consideration in subsequent years. According to figures compiled by The Guardian in 2014, if you have been a Man Booker judge, your chances of nomination increase significantly. Literary prizes have a tendency to swallow their own tails.

Does this matter? On the limited evidence I have assembled here, you might legitimately argue that it doesn’t, that the world of literary prizes is so closed, so arcane, that it can be ignored with impunity. But that argument quickly falls apart when you pause to consider the effect of longlists and shortlists on readers. Books which are listed for, or win, prizes are peddled furiously by their publishers and by booksellers. This feeds an idle, uncritical tendency in some readers who, bewildered by the array of books now available to them, in print or electronic format, plan their reading around prize lists. According to the Guardian piece to which I referred above, sales of prize-winning and listed books invariably enjoy massive increases and, although I doubt it would be possible to obtain anything more than anecdotal evidence for this, the increase is very likely at the expense of sales of books outside the golden circle created by the self-consuming serpent. The prize system manipulates readers in ways which can narrow their experience, limit their enjoyment and stunt their critical faculties. Surely, whatever goes on inside the circle, this fall-out is a troubling pollutant.

As a writer, and thus with at least a toe inside the circle, my discomfort also has other sources. Although prizes for generic fiction are less tainted in this way than others (but not, in my view, entirely untainted), looking at the big prize shortlists for 2014, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that they are trying to compare apples and pears. Exactly what can Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, have in common with its fellow shortlistee, The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer? One is an account of the experience of prisoners of war on the Burma Railroad, the other the story of a mentally ill teenager in contemporary Britain. Flanagan is one of Australia’s foremost novelists, with a string of substantial successes behind him. Filer is a British newcomer. Likewise, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing shares hardly any points of comparison with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, except that both are conventionally defined as novels and both were shortlisted for the Baileys Prize in 2014 (but not for the Man Booker. Evidence of continuing male bias? Or does the very existence of the Baileys mean that publishers don’t push books by women authors to the Man Booker judges?) McBride’s pared-down, almost pre-conscious voice also shares little or nothing with the mad, rococo exuberance of Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity, even though both appeared on the inaugural Folio Prize shortlist. (Do they breed, these prizes, in their foetid, incestuous golden circle?) It is, as far as I can see, utterly meaningless to lump a group of books together on the spurious basis that they are the ‘best’ novels published in a particular year.

At least the Costa has the decency to offer prizes in different categories: best novel, best first novel, best poetry book, best children’s book, best biography. In 2013, incidentally, Nathan Filer won the best first novel award. In 2014, Helen McDonald’s – admittedly utterly wonderful – H is for Hawk won both the Costa Best Biography and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Does literary incest raise its head again here? But I digress. The point I wanted to make is this. Having helpfully categorised its submissions for us, the Costa then goes on to pick, from its five incomparable and un-comparable winners, a Book of the Year! How? I, for one, have no idea.

My final, and most serious reservation about the culture of literary prizes is that it creates an unhealthy environment for writers. Yes, of course, the prize money and increased sales figures can transform the lives of winners by giving them a big enough financial cushion to pursue their craft without having to work in the local pub or (in my case, at one point) on a market stall. But this good fortune can also have the effect of setting writers against each other. It breeds resentment. I am not suggesting that writers, as a community, are any more or less prone to mealy-mouthed envy than any other group in which there is a hierarchy of reward. Bankers may be worse, clergy better. Or it could be the other way round. Writers, however, like all artists, but especially those who pursue a solitary creative process, live, I believe, with a particular precariousness and frailty. Up to a point, this may be a prerequisite for creativity. Beyond that point, however, it can induce creative paralysis and a crippling lack of self-esteem. If we are condemned to live and work in a world in which recognition is only granted to the golden – and perhaps quite random – few who win prizes, I do not believe most of us can function at our best.

Now,  I do not inhabit cloud cuckoo land. Like Sir Thomas More (reputation dismantled by the Man Booker-festooned Hilary Mantel), I may write about Utopia and still end up with my head cut off. I am fully aware that human beings are by nature competitive, and wouldn’t have achieved our domination of this planet if we weren’t. I doubt very much that any literary prize administrator happening across this article will be overcome by a bout of self-flagellation and call for the banishment of literary prizes. But a cat may look at a king, and every now and again it does the king no harm if she growls and flexes her claws a little.

Sarah Bower won a national children’s short story competition when she was nine. She blames her parents. She never would have entered the competition off her own bat. Oh no.


  1. "This feeds an idle, uncritical tendency in some readers who, bewildered by the array of books now available to them, in print or electronic format, plan their reading around prize lists."

    I think it's fair to say nobody has enough spare time to read all the books published in a given year in order to decide for themselves which one was their favourite. And I don't know anybody who'd disagree that there's an awful lot of rubbish out there in print and (especially) in electronic format. So people need to find their own ways of filtering the overwhelming quantity of books available down to a handful which they might actually want to read.

    For me, prize lists are part of that process. I'd never read something purely because it has won or been shortlisted for a prize, but there are plenty of occasions when I've picked a book up and read the first page in a bookshop, or sought out a review online, when I would otherwise never have heard of it. I don't think that's idle or uncritical. More to the point, I've found some great books that way.

    You can argue about the relative merits of different literary prizes, but ultimately I regard them as a force for good. The article above seems to suggest that prizes encourage an ever-narrowing spiral where the type of book that wins a given prize determines the type of book entered the following year, while simultaneously complaining that the books nominated for the big prizes are so varied that comparison is impossible and the notion of one being "the best" is a nonsense. It really can't be both.

    Without some element of recommendation (whether from prizes, bookshop recommendations, reviews, or word-of-mouth - all of which have their respective pros and cons), we are reduced to pulling books off the shelves at random or trusting the laughably incoherent You-bought-that-you-might-like-this suggestions from Amazon.

    From a writer's point of view - and in my case, a writer yet to enter anything other than short story competitions - prizes are useful in terms of helping you to stagger out of the swamp of obscurity. Yeah, it sucks when you don't win something you're in contention for, but it's never the worst thing that could possibly happen, and - as Sarah points out near the beginning of the article - you can always refuse to have your work considered for a prize if the whole thing bothers you that much.

  2. Having picked up a copy of Hilary Mantel's 'Bring up the bodies' solely to see what all the fuss was about with her winning the Man-Booker for a second time, I put it down again, having found the use of 'present tense' to narrate a historical novel set 500 years ago annoying and disconcerting (and I know I'm not alone in that). I'm afraid I have to agree with John Humphries of BBC Radio 4, who described that kind of writing as"'Attempting to create an entirely bogus sense of immediacy for the reader." I mean, what's next for Man-Booker nominees... future tense? Well I still won't buy them. Steve

  3. Whilst there are many who buy the books that win these literary prizes, I have learnt to avoid them at all costs. I honestly don't know what the criteria are for the choices made, but mostly I find these books incredibly boring, and of no real substance. But then, I am not a literary critic, am I?