CHARLIE CONNELLY: The inoxerable rise of the literary prize
PUBLISHED: 00:00 24 July 2018
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Politics, pignappings, and prosecco... Charlie Connelly lifts the lid on the world of literary prizes - including his own track record.
Kurt Vonnegut never won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he thought he knew why. He once managed a Saab dealership in Cape Cod that went to the wall, he explained before citing what he said was an old Norwegian proverb: “Swedes have short dicks but long memories”.
I’ve thought about Vonnegut’s theory recently given the rash of literary award announcements over the last month or so. Preti Taneja won the Desmond Elliott prize for debut novelists with We That Are Young while the Orwell Prize for political books was awarded to Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient carried off the public vote to select the Golden Booker, a ‘best of the Booker’ poll to mark the 50th year of Britain’s most famous literary award.
The English Patient won the Booker in 1993, the same year Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was selected as the Booker of Bookers to mark the prize’s 25th birthday. Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker in 1981, also took the Best of the Booker award in 2008, the Booker’s 40th anniversary. These are a lot of Bookers for your buck, blowing the Booker bugle in a manner that has more than a hint of self-reverence while also demonstrating the frequently bizarre nature of literary awards.
The Booker was first contested in 1968, the brainchild of Tom Maschler, a publisher at Jonathan Cape who persuaded wholesale goods dealers Booker McConnell to put up a £5,000 prize for the year’s best work of literary fiction. The first winner, Something To Answer For by P.H. Newby, is all but forgotten today beyond being a recondite piece of literary trivia.
Indeed the prize itself was a much lower-key affair in those days: Newby was a part-time novelist whose day job was running BBC Radio 3 and who was slightly alarmed by the potential of the attention to disrupt his regular employment. Rather than the hashtag-heavy social media countdown, breathless hyperbole and saturation coverage of the announcement we know today Newby was notified of his win by letter, with the judges describing Something To Answer For in the official announcement as ‘a considerable novel’, a flaccid adjective for a prize declamation that could apply to its physical size as much as its quality.
Literary prizes in Britain were few and far between before the arrival of the Booker, while today barely a week passes without a slightly embarrassed author picking up a piece of engraved glassware and posing for photographs before they’ve settled on a way of holding it that doesn’t look incredibly awkward. The canapé industry is practically funded by such literary prizegivings.
There must be people working in publishing who haven’t had to shop for food in years, they just circulate between ceremonies hoovering up the tiny hamburgers and slivers of salmon on little biscuits.
For all P.H. Newby’s bewildered reticence, authors do generally benefit from winning literary prizes.
The cash is always helpful, of course, with some awards offering life-changing sums.
There’s £50,000 for the Booker prize winner, for example, while the Dylan Thomas Prize for authors under 40 is worth £30,000. The Dublin International Literary Award, meanwhile, comes with a whopping 100,000 euros.
There are usually knock-on effects in terms of book sales too. When Anne Enright was shortlisted for the 2007 Booker her novel The Gathering had sold barely 800 copies, but winning the prize rocketed the book immediately to the top of the bestseller lists. The following year Aravind Adiga won with The White Tiger, again a title whose sales figures were firmly in three figures before the shortlist was announced, but one that went on to sell more than a million copies.
It doesn’t always work out so well for authors, however. Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road was nominated for the 1962 National Book Award in the USA but didn’t win, with Yates subsequently blaming missing out for a subsequent career decline.
Even winning doesn’t always turn out to be a happy ending either, bringing with it additional pressure to succeed and a place in the spotlight that some authors would rather avoid. James Alan McPherson became the first African-American winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1978 with his collection of short stories Elbow Room but found success hard to bear, particularly the pressure that went with being the first black writer to win.
“I stayed at home and hid out,” he said later. “You should be allowed to take joy in what happens to you but I was scared of the backlash. Some whites get resentful when someone from the lowest levels of society starts winning ‘their’ stuff so I’ve been very careful about protecting my privacy ever since those years.”
Literary awards are decided not by anything as transparent as a reliable points system, Queensberry rules or Hunger Games-style combat. Most are awarded by a committee or a public vote, making them by their very nature subjective. The Nobel Prize for Literature, of all awards, should be above reproach yet, Vonnegut’s tongue-in-cheek assessment aside, it was widely accepted that Graham Greene didn’t win the Nobel prize because he had a long-standing dispute with a member of the committee.
Imagine how Thomas Pynchon must have felt when his Gravity’s Rainbow was selected by the Pulitzer literary committee as 1974’s winner only to be overruled by their board who dismissed the book as ‘turgid’ and ‘unreadable’, meaning no award was presented that year. Three years later the same thing happened to Norman Maclean with A River Runs Through It.
Public polls, as we know only too well, are flawed and open to abuse, with social media-savvy authors orchestrating effective voting campaigns that make some awards as much a tip of the hat for crowd control as literary merit, but it’s the committee-selected bunfights that cause the most discussion among readers, writers and publishers.
A particular bugbear of mine is the P.G. Wodehouse Award for comic fiction, which is notable for repeatedly selecting books that are not remotely witty, let alone funny. The roster of winners includes such gag vacuums as Ian McEwan and Geoff Dyer neither of whom would remotely recognise a funny line if it put on a bowler hat and teamed up with Oliver Hardy. When Will Self won in 2008 his prize, a Gloucestershire Old Spot pig, was briefly stolen in protest by Julian Gough, a genuinely funny and original writer who had made the shortlist but lost out to Self and carried out an appropriately witty pignapping raid.
That’s not to say literary prizes are worthless. Far from it. Even if you might not agree with the winner there is for the reader a certain amount of separating wheat from chaff that’s very useful
when so many books are published every year.
A Booker prizewinner is almost without exception worth reading, ditto Costa Book Award winners.
For me the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and the Booker International award all provide consistently excellent winners, while the current popularity of nature writing means the Wainwright Prize maintains an extremely high standard.
If there is one valid criticism of the current awards system it’s one articulated by Kevin Duffy, co-founder of the Hebden Bridge-based publisher Bluemoose Books, earlier this month. I’d been particularly pleased to see the Bluemoose-produced The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers win the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction as it is an outstanding book by a brilliant writer at an excellent small publisher that saw off strong challenges from much larger, better-resourced publishing houses.
You’d be forgiven for not hearing about it though, as Myers’ scooping of the £25,000 prize seemed to pass almost completely under the radar. I only found out myself because I follow Myers on Twitter having read and loved his now award-winning, pungent, visceral and earthy account of the Cragg Vale Coiners, an 18th century gang of Yorkshire currency forgers, and the land on which they both menaced and protected the local population.
With so many prizes awarded at the moment, not to mention the added distraction of the World Cup, I thought Myers’ win had just passed me by but Duffy has argued otherwise in a blog for trade magazine The Bookseller. He noted that the announcement had been made in Kelso at the Borders Book Festival, while similar – but much less lucrative – awards received more recognition because they were able to waft prosecco and crudités under the noses of the London literary establishment.
“A book that was turned down by every publisher in London,” Duffy wrote of The Gallows Pole, “published by a husband-and-wife team in Hebden Bridge (who re-mortgaged their house to publish new writers and have had their books optioned by Hollywood and sold in more than 80 countries) and went on to win the world’s leading literary prize for historical fiction – its previous
winners include Hilary Mantel, Robert Harris and Irish laureate for fiction Sebastian Barry. Surely that should
raise the literary beak from the
leather-bound halls of the
There is a tangible cliqueness about the London publishing world. Inevitably the major players in the industry are gathered in the capital, but the lack of coverage for such a prestigious award because it came via e-mail from the Scottish borders rather than on a South Bank terrace overlooking the Thames is a concern.
For Myers the award should be life-changing – he’s said he’ll use the cash to buy himself more time to sit in his garden listening to birdsong – and Bluemoose should be sharing the prestige too, not least clocking up serious sales, because The Gallows Pole isn’t just a great historical novel, it’s a great work of fiction.
As an author I’ve been shortlisted three times without winning a single thing and so I can declare with some authority that shortlisting is easily the best outcome.
You get to go the ceremony, you get fed, you develop your increasing penchant for prosecco and for once you don’t feel like a gatecrasher.
By not winning you don’t have to make a speech and you don’t have to pose awkwardly for photographs or cart a heavy piece of engraved glass home on the train.
OK, you’d mentally spent the prize money you didn’t win, but as long as you’d not actually spent it it’s still all good.
You haven’t had to bankrupt a car dealership to avoid winning, either.