Should we prize literary prizes?

This post was contributed by Bianca Leggett, a research student in the Department of English and Humanities.

It only takes a cursory look around the fiction section of any bookshop to see that literary prizes are big business.  Proclamations of prizes won and novels shortlisted clamour for attention alongside ‘3 for 2’ stickers and snippets of glowing reviews on every cover.  But are literary prizes more than just another marketing tool?

The weight which literary prizes hold with the reading public suggests a desire to be guided towards new and exciting literary fiction. In this sense, literary prizes provide a healthy counterbalance to a publishing industry which sometimes only seems interested in authors who have attained the status of celebrities or celebrities who fancy themselves authors. Nevertheless, the proliferation of literary prizes in this country risks reducing the attempt to draw special attention to the chosen few into a general cacophony of criticism.

According to James F. English, the rise of literary prize culture is ‘one of the great untold stories of modern cultural life’ whose examination raises questions about ‘the very nature of our individual and collective investments in art’. Many of the questions raised relate to the criteria by which literary prizes are awarded, which is also to say, the criteria by which some are excluded. This applies, not only to the inevitable fuss when a favoured author or book fails to make the cut, but also to the way prizes are delimited on the basis of gender, genre, age or nationality. The character of each prize is defined by which particular group of literature or authors it has chosen to support and promote, yet too rigorous a policing of its own borders risks seeming arbitrary or, worse, exclusionary. Controversy last week over Granta’s inclusion of Kamila Shamsie—a Pakistani author in the process of applying for British citizenship—in their Best of Young British Novelists list, is a case in point. Had Granta chosen not to include Shamsie on the basis of her lack of citizenship, though, the result would probably have been the same.The increasingly transnational nature of authors and their works is just one of the challenges to the traditional taxonomies upon which many literary prizes are based as they attempt to keep pace with the literature they judge.

Literary excellence, always ostensibly the most important factor in prize culture, is also subject to redefinition as values shift and change. When the 2011 Man Booker Prize committee declared the importance of ‘readability’ in their judging criteria, they unleashed a storm of debate about whether literary prize culture is inherently elitist and, if so, whether this constituted a problem. Critics like Allan Massie hit back saying, ‘Everybody is elitist when it comes to subjects they care about, quick to applaud what they think good and to disparage what doesn’t, in their opinion, measure up’.

But what measures up and what does not remains a difficult question to answer. Should worthy themes weigh more with us than dazzling prose?  Should a formally innovative novel be valued over one which moves us or can tell a captivating story? Philip Hensher, compared the Man Booker unfavourably to Granta’s list, arguing that it over-emphasised ‘significance’.  He went on rather glibly, ‘[b]rio, unlike the decision to write a long dull novel about a historical genocide, is a quality that tends to last’. If Hensher is right and we have reached a point where literature is divided into well-crafted and entertaining novels on the one hand and worthy but clumsy ones on the other, then it’s a depressing state of affairs, although one suspects that as a beneficiary of the 2003 list Hensher might be talking up the ‘brio’ camp to which his own books presumably belong.

Clearly no one is impartial in the question of what makes great literature and consensus will always prove elusive, but the attempt to settle the question comes around again whenever a literary prize is on the horizon. Anticipation in the build up to the new Granta Young British Novelist list, announced last week on 15 April, was intense for a number of reasons. Not least this year was the knowledge that—since authors over the age of 40 are not eligible—Hilary Mantel would not be swiping this one…  The Granta list differs from its fellows in that it comes around only once in every ten years but also because it rewards potential rather than established talent.  It has a good track record for spotting promise in authors not yet on most readers’ radar and of suggesting the shape of the literary landscape yet to come.  Despite some sad omissions (Courttia Newland and Jon McGregor are, to my mind, the most surprisingly overlooked) it’s an exciting list which suggests some interesting new trends. For one thing, there are a record number of authors who are expats, recent arrivals or of dual heritage, suggesting (as with the inclusion of Shamsie) that the prize committee wished to reflect an increasingly global outlook. The authors chosen also tend to straddle artistic boundaries, combining their career as novelists with games writing (Naomi Alderman), film making (Xialou Guo), conceptual art (Steven Hall) or sculpting (Jenni Fagan) to name but a few.  It’s also perhaps the first list to feature two writers (Naomi Alderman and Steven Hall) who have written for Doctor Who. What does it all mean?

Perhaps not as much as all that. After all, prizes are determined on arbitrary criteria by a small number of people whose judgement often errs, blinding us to the best in literature as often as it alerts us to something worthy of our attention. At the very least, though, they stir up debate and conversation about what it is we value about literature and where we should be looking for the stories that matter to the times in which we live. Not all prizes are of equal value, however, and it’s worth staying reflective about what they really represent. It seems to me that the public needs some guidance about which are the prizes that really matter, perhaps a small committee of expert individuals who could determine what makes a good literary prize and draw attention to those which are most merit worthy… Would it be taking matters too far to establish a prize for literary prizes?

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