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The fine art of the literary prize

By Tom Chatfield  

As the judges for the 2009 Booker prize are announced, it’s time, once again, to ponder the merits of the swelling class of event to which it belongs—the modern literary award. Which is exactly what I’ve been doing in an essay for our latest edition. I’m fascinated by the whole notion and culture of the literary prize (indeed, much of the inspiration for my own career began with winning a few local competitions; and I’m one of the judges of the VS Pritchett prize for short stories this year, the winner of which will be published by Prospect). Like most of the authors and publishers I spoke to during my research, though, I’m also thoroughly ambivalent about its role in the world of books; and about what this role suggests for the future of literature in print.

If, on the grand scale, literature is about enduring excellence, there can seem something at best rather arbitrary and at worst downright self-serving about the business of prize-givings. As James Wood rather magnificently put it, looking back on his own stint as a Booker judge:

…prizes have become a form of reviewing: it is prize-lists that select what people read, prize-lists that make literary careers. Bookshops order novels based on the prizes they have won or been shortlisted for. Nowadays, a whole month before the shortlist is announced, scores of novelists are effectively told that their books have not been the “big books” of the year, because they are not to be found on the longlist. Soon, no doubt, we will have the long-longlist, and the long-long longlist. Some wonderful books win the Booker, of course, just as the flypaper occasionally catches some really large flies. But it means – or should mean – nothing in literary terms.

Which neatly summarises most of the problems with contemporary prize culture. And yet—it also summarises the critical and commercial landscape within which books are now being published (or not) and read (or not). And if prizes are a flawed concept, they’re also as old an institution as written literature itself, and one that currently sustains much of the best that’s out there; not to mention, on a more modest level, many young or marginal authors for whom writing is a deeply uncertain career. Great literature may speak for itself. But it needs to be written to be read; and not all would-be writers are able to eke out their days indefinitely in garrets.

Gone, largely, are the days when adventurous editors took on a spate of new authors and novels each year, with an eye to nurturing talent that might eventually find an audience. Gone, too, are many of the lower-levels of a literary culture that once nourished new writers and readers: the smaller magazines, the anthologies, the idiosyncratic local newspapers and journals. In their place, of course, we have the internet: a vast new landscape of words with which literature has yet to negotiate any comfortable relationship. But for old-fashioned words on a page, as they have existed this last few hundred years, this freedom is a cold comfort; and literary prizes of all types now offer one of the few truly open channels between those outside the world of books / magazines and its products.

Print culture may be sick, but for the time being it remains the medium within which quality literature and the literary canon exist. And if prizes have become its lifeblood, in however compromised a manner, we should think very carefully about their gifts and their dangers—and how, at their best, they can keep vigorous that ancient, vital process by which written words slowly become part of the public, shared edifice of literature.

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