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
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