Tag Archives: Arts and Culture

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?


World Poetry Day 2013

Today is World Poetry Day and to celebrate we are sharing a selection of poems by Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing second year students and their teacher, lecturer Liane Strauss.

by Samuel Langworth

The bone of those high vaults
could not contain them.
They bled from the dark ink
of their deliveries, bigger
than whiteness. They outgrew
the walls of their birth-rooms.
They could not be housed.

They were too big for their communities.
They stretched across boundaries,
monolithic capitals, more
than all cities combined.
They outgrew their horizons –

and they burned through borders,
illuminating tongues.

And Greece could not contain them,
and Taiwan could not contain them,
and Mexico could not contain them,
and Antarctica could not contain them,
and Sierra Leone could not contain them,
and the Solomon Islands could not contain them,
and Trinidad and Tobago could not contain them,
and the earth could not contain them,
and the sea could not contain them,
and they rose, they rose,
converging over the world,
and the sky could not contain them,
and they burst
in one
golden cry of light.

And the world listened.


A New Chapter
by Yvonne Stone

I hesitate,
then turn the handle,
opening a new chapter.
I enter the room.
I deflate my rubber legs
and collapse into the nearest seat.
The seat protests violently.
It avenges itself
and announces my arrival.
I smile politely,
Not even sure I’m in the right place.
My confidence drains
before I can plug the holes with “hellos”.
I need a witty remark
but my brain is ice,
frozen by the glare of the bright room.
A refrigerator full of talent,
freshly filled with youthful optimism.
I must be in the wrong place.


by Walter Jones

In spring on a mock piazza you built
A nest inside my heart and I built one
In yours and together we flew
On the ascent of summer, crossing continents
Where nests are built under the pokey-outey
Bits of castle walls, built for war,
So we do battle
Against the rain inside this other world,
Soft and persistent, like love,
With keen eyes fixed on the future:
Our journey home, reflected on lakes and rivers
And every grain of dazzling beach sand.

Descending to rest on neglected garden furniture
Washed up in the quiet tide of winter.


Blow in
by Kirsten McLaughlin

What do they really think?
They are friendly enough,
will buy you a drink, laugh,
and welcome you in.
You, who carry the sins of the father,
or rather, a Mother Country, in your blood.

What do they really think,
when, God knows why, you try
to justify your presence with a genetic link
to O’Neils on your mother’s side,
and spend hours talking about mackerel
and mullet, and earnestly discuss tides
with men who know exactly who you are,
and where you live, and what you drive;
even the colour of your swim suit this year
and the rock you sometimes dive off.

What do they think when you keep coming back;
prepared to open and shut an extra gate
someone put across the track; that you stack turf;
riddle the stony earth and plant potatoes.
When you push into the bar and heads turn,
or not, in your direction, what makes you sense
you are merely a tolerable interruption?

And what do they really think,
when you sink your fourth pint of Guinness?
Does it impress? Does it make you less
of a blow in? Does learning how to build
a dry stone wall that doesn’t fall within the year
endear you to those around? Or does the sound
of your English accent grate, and agitate old wounds?

You will never know, you will blow in, and out,
harbouring doubt, which could be unfounded,
hounded, by your own ghosts.


by c c bowden

He combs the shore,
strokes gold and silver particles
that glimmer from his gaze,
christened by waves
too long ago to remember.
Travelling light forever
daily dawn embraces.
Yawning je t’adore


by Guillaume Vandame

Sometimes it snows and seconds later the sky will shine.
The world becomes a pale blue moonstone
And you can see the thick silhouettes of the branches.

Then the snow melts and runs down the panels of glass in thin streams.
The sun reflects in low glass cells and glows for a minute.
The water dries and the sky settles into the bed of evening.


by Catherine Speight

These shoulders that you liked to kiss
Are raised towards my ears
To tell you that I heard you
But I’m going to hide my tears.

You’ve felt the falter in my voice
As the countdown scratches on.
It says Dubai’s too far away
And six months is far too long.

This little fleshy crease
In the corner of my mouth
Is there to stop the caustic words
From firing straight out.

Now, awkwardly my head tilts
As it tries to say I’m strong,
But you just said “we’ll be ok”
And we both know that you’re wrong.

Maybe I can shrug you off
And let this all fall down.
Your posting starts tomorrow
And you need to pack now.


by Bruce Coker

Some days I feel like
everybody’s looking at me;
other days, nobody.
I can’t make up my mind
which is worse.


Glass Bottom Car
by Liane Strauss

Windows are overrated.
I never liked fairs.  Landscapes
like a ground bass, scene after scene.
Auger bit developments. Mortis and beam.
Oak elm pine white green bare trees.

The high streets, the highways
go felly round spokes. Celluloid living,
a wooden-maned horse. Film frames on sprockets
cranked by telephone poles,
trick magic old-world lantern shows.

My windscreen was snow-blacked,
bug-juice grimed. I didn’t want windows.
I covered them up. The metronome wipers
couldn’t clean or keep time.
When you’ve seen this world once it’s enough.

I like to go fast
in my glass bottom car, the macadam moonscape
is never the same, the cracks in the craters,
they break my heart,
on the coal-colored lard milky way,

and never look up,
watch the road rush black, rich river oil
torrents in hard rain, streamers riding the wind
snapped and no way back
in my glass bottom beauty machine.


Media coverage of the Iraq invasion

This post was contributed by Dr Tim Markham, Reader in Journalism and Media in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies.

The build-up to the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has featured a lot of media coverage about media coverage. Dodgy dossiers and sexed-up briefing reports have been dusted off with something like affection, while the key players are wheeled out to reprise what have inevitably become hackneyed condemnations and rationalisations, former Prime Minister Tony Blair with that look of stark incredulity that has become his default countenance. There’s nothing unusual about any of this: journalists like to talk about journalism, and the added whiff of nostalgia makes this particular temptation irresistible. It’s true also of war reporting in the post-modern era, with British and American news reports often focussing explicitly on the PR tactics surrounding the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue or George Bush’s Mission Accomplished jamboree. But there’s a broader problem here, one which I would describe as a kind of ironised distance between our elites and the public, with journalists hovering uncertainly in between.

Iraq didn’t break British politics. Disengagement has many origins, and this was just one of a series of fruitless attempts to find political meaning or even national identity through military intervention. But the prevalence of media management in both political decision-making and as a central preoccupation of journalists gives audiences an easy opt-out, enabling a reflex scepticism about foreign and domestic policy alike. David Cameron was never going to find his Falklands in Libya, not because we’re unsupportive as a nation of the uprisings of the Arab spring, but because any sense of investment in a political system that makes decisions about foreign intervention has been hollowed out.

The atrocities of Abu Ghraib, awful as they were, gave journalists a chance to atone for what is now widely acknowledged as a collective loss of nerve at the beginning of the war. Those images became a kind of functional evil, a way of ‘othering’, as we say in the trade, responsibility for all of the nihilism, politicking and casual dehumanisation that any war entails. But however many of us chanted “Not in my name” on a bleak afternoon in Hyde Park, Iraq was and remains our war. Susan Sontag put this well, describing the photographs depicting abuse of Iraqi prisoners as representative of what we condone, however implicitly, our governments doing: “Considered in this light,” she wrote shortly before her death, “the photographs are us”.

Much has been said about the need for journalists to report war responsibly and humanely, avoiding both the reduction of conflict to spectacle and the blanket victimisation or demonisation of those caught up in it. It would be helpful too if journalists could find a way of covering the politics surrounding military intervention that avoids the feedback loop of jostling egos, sanctimonious moralising and pious outrage.

But the generalised disavowal of political responsibility for what a nation does runs deeper than how it plays out in the news. If editorial responses to military intervention range narrowly from cheerleading to sulking, and with a sardonic knowingness now the chief marker of journalistic professionalism when it comes to foreign policy and domestic politics, then this is only symptomatic of a broader, festering culture of world-weary yet instinctive withdrawal.