Difficulties With Prizes



From Review 31:

The Booker prize website says ‘It is a measure of quality of the original drafting that the main ambitions of the prize have not changed. The aim is to increase the reading of quality fiction to attract the “intelligent general audience”’ – for some reason the “intelligent general audience” is in scare quotes. The press release announcing the prize elaborated on this: ‘the real success will be a significant increase in sales of the winning book, which will be to some extent shared not only by the authors who have been shortlisted but also by authors all over the country.’ So there are two aims here and I’ll deal with them separately.

The first one is the idea of ‘quality fiction’ which is a kind of terrible little phrase; it sounds like a selection of rather sub-standard chocolates. The standard for good writing, as Sara has demonstrated, is not a fixed thing. It reflects cultural assumptions as well as the judges’ opinion of what the best book is that year. Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote recently, in the Bookseller, a very interesting piece after both the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Goldsmiths Prize shortlists where announced. Eighteen books; one by a woman, from those entire two shortlists. One of these prizes, according to their website, wants to reward ‘audacious new work,’ the other one wants to offer ‘something for everyone’. Rentzenbrink wrote, ‘The cultural dominance of men is a self-fulfilling prophecy When I commission profile pieces for The Bookseller [where she is an editor] I have to intentionally concentrate on widening the net. I have to pay attention.’

So I’m interested in that idea of paying attention and asking whether prizes can and should pay attention to different areas. Are prizes political? My straight answer to that is, yes. I do think we live in a politically skewed world. We’re not playing on a level playing-field. I don’t know whether prizes alter markets, but certainly the Women’s Prize, which was founded in 1996 by Kate Mosse, was founded in direct response to shortlists and longlists on most prizes being, she says, ‘Regularly about 10% women, about 90% men,’ which is extraordinary when we look at the literary landscape today. We don’t see literary fiction – written in English – dominated by men to such an extent any more. It is obviously impossible to say for sure that initiatives like the Women’s Prize have directly caused the more general acceptance of women’s narratives and narratives by women; I hope so, I would say yes they have.

One of the things I have noticed is that a lot of the people who are doing this noticing in the publishing world, a lot of people who are noticing new kinds of narratives, whether it’s to do with an expansion of the idea of genre, the idea of what the novel can be, whether it’s more people from different backgrounds, of different genders, are small publishers, a lot of them working in translation, which is an area I’m personally very concerned with. I just wanted to talk a bit about what happens when a small publisher gets involved in a major prize like the Booker because it’s not an easy thing. The Booker is a prize for books which are published not only up to the announcement date but five months on from the announcement date so I think for the current Booker you have to submit by November, and your book might not be published until the following April.

“Prizes are Political: A Conversation About Literary Prize-giving”, Joanna Walsh, Review 31