Sunday, March 19, 2006

On Literary Prizes

Recently I had an email from a US blogger asking me a very interesting question about prizes: he wanted to know whether I thought the (Man) Booker prize had ever gone to the wrong book.

I checked out available lists of shortlists and winners and was ashamed to discover that I hadn't read a large enough proportion of them to be able to give a meaningful answer to his question. My excuse is that when one reads for a living, one's reading, while reasonably voluminous, is of necessity shockingly skewed.

All I could say for sure was that there were a handful of winners I thought would have deserved the prize no matter what the competition was: Coetzee for Disgrace, Byatt for Possession, Pat Barker for The Ghost Road, Arundhati Roy for The God of Small Things and Kazuo Ishiguro for The Remains of the Day. Even that list is a tad meaningless, as there are many other winners I've not read. (Which of these Titans woud be the über-winner? Could such a choice be made, and if it could, could it possibly mean anything?)

Readers get passionate and writers get vulnerable whenever the topic of prizes comes up. People on judging committees stare at each other in wide-eyed, jaw-dropped disbelief, unable to process whatever mad opinions they have just heard coming out of each others' mouths. Writers who get shortlisted and then don't win are unable to keep up the exultation of getting shortlisted and instead just sulk because someone else beat them.

(Amusingly, sometimes their partners sulk vicariously; you can tell a great deal about what drives a writer's relationship with his or her partner by watching the partner's behaviour on prize nights.)

Are literary prizes a good thing or not? The same arguments tend to get trotted out and rehashed over and over, and I'm usually quite up to arguing sincerely on both sides of the issue. Yes, prizes are bad because they encourage the idea of competition in art (corruptive) as well as the idea that it's possible to come up with an evaluative hierarchy and say with conviction 'This book is better than that book', an activity I dislike. But on the other hand, no, prizes are not a bad thing, because they mean money for writers. Can't go past that one.

What brought all this on, of course, apart from the email from the US blogger, was the announcement last week of Kate Grenville's Commonwealth Writers' Prize win for The Secret River, closely followed by the announcement of this year's Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist. Grenville is on that list as well, and has to be the front runner. Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose seemed genuinely startled, when I saw him last week, to find his novel A Case of Knives on the same longlist, which was one of the most endearingly modest moments I've ever seen from any writer I've ever met.

Potentially controversial choices from this longlist include Peter Temple's The Broken Shore, which is brilliantly written borderline generic 'crime', and Christos Tsiolkas's Dead Europe, which has made some rational grown-up men and women grind their teeth and/or throw up -- a new and colourful addition, in the critics' lexicon, to the more usual 'I laughed, I cried.'

This was Kate Grenville's competition for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize:

Regional shortlist (South East Asia and the South Pacific)

March by Geraldine Brooks
Grace by Robert Drewe
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer
Blindsight by Maurice Gee
The Secret River by Kate Grenville
Surrender by Sonia Hartnett
Sandstone by Stephen Lacey
The Ballad of Desmond Kale by Roger McDonald
The Marsh Birds by Eva Sallis
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Regional winners

The Secret River by Kate Grenville
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
The Sun by NIght by Benjamin Kwakye
Alligator by Lisa Moore

And here's the Miles Franklin longlist:

Anne Bartlett, Knitting
Brian Castro, The Garden Book
Kate Grenville, The Secret River
Steven Lang, An Accidental Terrorist
Roger McDonald, The Ballad of Desmond Kale
Alex Miller, Prochownik's Dream
Joanna Murray-Smith, Sunnyside
Peter Rose, A Case of Knives
Christos Tsiolkas, Dead Europe
Peter Temple, The Broken Shore
Carrie Tiffany, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living
Brenda Walker, The Wing of Night

14 comments:

Perry Middlemiss said...

I received the same email regarding the Booker Prize and I have one year where I believe the winner should have been ranked no higher than fourth - and that is a year in which I've only read four of the six books shortlisted. I have a feeling if I were to read the other two then the winner might continue to slip down the ranking. I must write this up.

I don't believe literary prizes are about competition - at least not when the book is being written. I look on them as a means of finding books and authors that might have been overlooked. How the media looks at the awards is another matter entirely. Their aim is to increase the tension and thereby create interest. Building up the competition and quoting authors and publishers out of context is the best way for that to occur. Quickest anyway.

KLG said...

Agreed that they are rarely if ever about competition while being written. It's only after the shortlists start coming out that the writers start to look a bit ragged round the edges, civilised-behaviour-wise. I was astonished by the story about Rushdie abusing the judges' chairman in the gents', after he'd failed to win, but I don't know why I was surprised -- I've seen some pretty naff behaviour by non-winners in my time. And by winners, if it comes to that.

I've done a fair bit of prize judging over the years and the challenge is always to find a book that everyone agrees about. In a funny way there's a negative dimension here for the winner, as there's always an element of 'safe' choice about this, and of course the larger the judging panel the more this applies. This is one reason I was so pleased when Kalman won the Booker that year -- a completely out-there kind of choice. (This, of course, may be the one you object to!)

KLG said...

And a PS -- yes, I didn't realise quite how intrusive the media interventions were until the morning after David Marr, Mark Rubbo and I parted ways with the Miles Franklin administrators, when my poor sister was woken before 6 am by some sh*twit radio jock on the phone from Sydney, looking for me to find out whether there'd been a fight. Never mind the lah-di-dah littery stuff, tell us about the biffo.

*BIG SIGH*

Perry Middlemiss said...

Nope, didn't object to the Kelman - haven't read it but a friend who has tells me the language is pretty fruity.

No, I'm thinking of a year in the late 1980s. Anyway, I'll write that one up.

I also wasn't too happy with the Okri win in 1991 - a bit unimpressed with magic realism I suspect. I was living in the UK that year and got to read all the novels between the shortlist announcement and the prize ceremony. The Amis is a gimmick (done previously and better by Ballard, I think), the Doyle is funny, but thin, and the best of the lot was Rohinton Mistry's "Such a Long Journey". Wonderful book.

The US sf author Mike Resnick once told me that a Hugo award for a short story was probably worth $100k in reprint rights and future enhanced contracts. A pretty penny indeed. So you understand that some authors look on the "award business" as a bit of meat-market.

I had heard that Rushdie stormed out of the Booker dinner when he didn't win but didn't know he'd cornered a judge in the urinal. Priceless.

Anonymous said...

I read somewhere (LRB?) that the best book in a prize's shortlist is rarely the winner. The prize book is a compromise, every judge's second-best choice. My (admittedly incomplete) reading of recent Booker shortlists tends to back this up. Except for Coetzee … I'd pay to read his shopping lists.
Of course it is unfortunate when art gives way to marketing and the typical media gawk-fest (Step right Up! A real live writer!) but as Kerryn rightly points out: (a) writers need the money, and (b) see point (a). As long as the money gets shared around.
Stefano

KLG said...

Stefano ... ?

Are you the (only, I think) Stefano I know? Hard to believe, if so -- you/he work(s) far too hard to be a blog-reader!

Perry -- I think the Rushdie story is at Marshall's blog.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Kerryn, we've not met (Stefano is just a nickname). I'm an 'umble editor and, in my slacker moments, blog reader.
S

KLG said...

Just wondering if I was inadvertently not saying hi to someone I know. All readers eagerly welcomed, believe me.

genevieve said...

I liked this article I found via Mark Sarvas' blog late last year:
http://www.newyorker.com/critics/books/articles/051226crbo_books

It's a review of a book on the prize winning culture - tough, but necessary at times. And it's still accessible online, which is something of a wonder in itself.

Eric Forbes said...

Hello Kerryn - I really enjoy reading your blog and look forward to more of your intellgent musings. I look at literary prizes as guides to choosing books to buy, read or collect. Some years I do not like the prizewinners at all, but I believe they are still noteworthy in some aspects. I thought Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children deserving wins. And also Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things.

Perry Middlemiss said...

I've written up my piece on the Booker. The year was 1986 when Kingsley Amis's "The Old Devils" won. A terribly self-indulgent book that should have come last instead of first. Actually I wouldn't have even short-listed it.

KLG said...

I think the Poms have got a thing about Kingsley Amis. I wish some very good psychoanalytically inclined critic would write something about exactly why and how Lucky Jim struck a chord with the British reading populace, because they adored him for it all his life.

(Of course it's quite possible that someone has already.)

Dean said...

I agree with eric forbes. There's so much stuff published every year that prizes are considered a shopping guide. And with the price of new books these days...

I don't see why writers should be excepted from the discipline and pressure of prizes, either. Everyone is assessed, scrutinised and judged in this world we inhabit, and writers should be no different. After all, the sales of their books are a reflection of how well they have read the expectations of the public.

I'm all for prizes, and I don't see how they can be a corrupting influence. If you'd be so kind as to spell that one out...

Pavlov's Cat said...

Prizes as a corrupting influence ... well, I meant in the sense that they bring out people's competitive instincts, which I think makes for bad, compromised art. You say '... how well they have read the expectations of the public' -- but is reading the expectations of the public really what we want writers, or any artists, to do?

It's certainly the last thing I want them to do. I want them to broaden and shake up my expectations, not reinforce them.

I agree that art eventually gets subjected to the marketplace, but it ought not to be manufactured to suit it, otherwise there would be no difference between art and any other kind of commodity. I know some people think there isn't anyway, but I am not one of them.

I can see the possibility of writers tailoring their stuff -- even quite unconsciously -- to their notion of what will will a particular prize, or prizes in general. I can see them thinking 'Oh, the Miles Franklin has to be about "Australian life", I'd better write that kind of book.'

That's one reason why I was so thrilled to see Christos Tsiolkas's Dead Europe on the longlist, though it didn't make it to the shortlist. That's a very extreme, out-there book that shocked and disgusted a number of well-adjusted adults, but it's also very well-written and powerful and full of important ideas. Winning the Miles Franklin would have been the very last thing on Tsiolkas's mind and good on him, and good on the judges for not picking a bland and non-controversial longlist that excluded him.