Book review: Lost for words by Edward St Aubyn

The truth about literary awards
May 21, 2014

Edward St Aubyn's new novel is a satire on the world of literary prizes, but, says Lionel Shriver, it is a slight work by an accomplished writer. ©Janie Airey

Literary circles so routinely garner a reputation for back-biting, back-stabbing and back-scratching that it’s a wonder writers have any skin left below the shoulder blades. These same flayed specimens judge literary prizes, which have, in turn, garnered a reputation for caprice, corruption, arbitrariness, and an inbuilt propensity to crown the dread “compromise” candidate—everyone’s second choice on which a feuding, factionalised jury can at least agree. All told, it’s a wonder that we take the baubles so seriously.

Regarding the big prizes, the explanation is money. Never mind the purse; in the 12 weeks on either side of Vernon God Little’s 2003 Man Booker win, sales of DBC Pierre’s novel increased by nearly 5,000 per cent. For all the healthy cynicism with which readers might view awards—suspecting that judges favour friends and punish rivals—the suckers still go out and buy the winning book.

Authors also face a dilemma. If they have been neglected by the jury, writers who pooh-pooh a prize risk the stain of sour grapes. The winner has the standing to dismiss an award, but also the most to gain from promoting the exercise as one of probity and discernment.

Besides, not everyone takes prizes seriously. Edward St Aubyn doesn’t—or so he might have us believe. His own Mother’s Milk was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2006, and now the author of the distinguished Patrick Melrose novels has published a piss-take aimed specifically at the Booker. (For discussion: whether Lost for Words would have appeared quite so irresistible a project if in 2006 St Aubyn had triumphed.)

From such an accomplished author, Lost for Words is a slight novel. Its tone wobbles, and some of the humour falls flat. Its broad comic timbre—just shy of farce—sacrifices any genuine emotional investment in the cast. Thus attempts at characterisation and subplots that have little to do with the novel’s central target leave the reader impatient to get to the good bits. But there are many good bits and, on occasion, inspired ones.

The Elysian Prize is sponsored by “the Elysian Group,” which doesn’t flog alternative investment management but “the world’s most radical herbicides and pesticides.” Retired from the Foreign Office, nonagenarian Sir David Hampshire serves on Elysian’s board and hand picks the prize jury. Judges include a former girlfriend of Hampshire’s, Penny Feathers, who writes thrillers—bad thrillers, it should go without saying—and Hampshire’s godson, Tobias Benedict, an actor whose sole qualification for judging a literary prize is having been “a fanatical reader ever since he was a little boy.”

The chair, Malcolm Craig, is a backbench MP who fancies power even of such a modest variety, and hopes to curry favour with a senior colleague by getting the man’s novel, written under a pseudonym, on the shortlist. Malcolm is sure of manipulating Penny, and Tobias also, if only because the latter never comes to the meetings. That leaves two judges as mere annoyances: Jo Cross, a columnist obsessed with “relevance,” and Vanessa Shaw, an Oxbridge academic interested in “good writing.” When pressed to be more specific about her enthusiasms, Vanessa clarifies, “especially good writing.”

Of the 200 novels submitted for the Elysian, the judges read almost none of them. Given the former Booker judges I have met who have destroyed their eyesight in a single year, on this point St Aubyn may do real book-prize judges an injustice.

The authors, too, are a motley crew. Katherine is a femme fatale carrying on with three men at once; she may have talent, but we’ll never know, since her editor submits not her new novel but an Indian cookbook to the Elysian by mistake. Sonny, the cookbook writer’s egotistical Indian nephew, is indignant at his aunt’s eventual shortlisting, having written his own 2,000-page opus, The Mulberry Elephant, which still lacks a British publisher. Didier is a French intellectual who flies into ecstasies of paradox.

I made a note on page 69: “I predict X will win.” Though I was right, I’m not sure the telescoped ending matters. The delicious passages of this novel are its parodies, from which I will quote generously.

Of the Trainspotting genre, wot u starin at is a work of “gritty social realism” that begins:

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

Death Boy’s troosers were round his ankies. The only vein in his body that hadna bin driven into hiding was his cock.

“I told yuz nivir ivir to talk to uz when Aym trackin a vein,” snarled Death Boy.

The searing portrayal of life on a Glasgow housing estate continues later:

“Wot u starin at?” sais the red-haired cunt at the bar.

“Ay wasna starin at anythin,” said Death Boy.

“Listen, mate,” sais Wanker, who wasna in the mood for a fight, being skag-sick, and pissed at the world on account of his AIDS test comin back positive, “there’s nae cunt staring at

nae cunt.”

A “richly textured portrait of Jacobean London,” All the World’s a Stage is written by a New Zealander from the point of view of William Shakespeare. It contains dialogue like, “Indeed, the tears lie in an onion that should water that sorrow,” and this, when Shakespeare is asked to produce a sonnet:

“Why, tis in my codpiece,” said William, “for a man is a fool who keeps not a poem in his codpiece, and a codpiece that hath no poem in it is indeed a foolish codpiece.”

“It is a naughty codpiece,” said John, “for it hath naught in it.”

“Ho-ho,” said goodly Master Jonson, draining his tankard of sack, “a battle of wits!”

St Aubyn takes marvellous mickey out of nature writing (“…the yarrow with its feathery white and pink flowers and the bright red berries of the poisonous baneberry bush…”), and has a wonderful time with Didier’s pretentious deconstruction. Capitalism, writes the Frenchman, offers “the consolation of its own pale triumvirate: the producer, the consumer and the commodity. Thanks to advertising, the producer sells the commodity to the consumer; thanks to the internet, the consumer is the commodity sold to the producer. This is the Utopia of borderless democracy: a shift of the signifier in the desert of the Real. … [I]n the absence of the hidden object, we cannot see what we see, because we have abandoned the need to search. As for searching, let our engines do it for us!”

To the extent that St Aubyn advances an argument, it seems to be voiced by a guest at the Elysian Prize dinner: “If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent. Only the mediocre, pushing forward a commonplace view of life in a commonplace language, can really be compared.”

I’ve judged only one major literary award, and that peek behind the curtain jibed with St Aubyn’s scepticism. My fellow judges weren’t scheming or malign, but the process did feel arbitrary, the standards applied helter-skelter, the choice of winner a little cowardly (correct inference: I did not get my way). I’ve won a single literary prize of moment, and at that time I was surprisingly keen on the exercise. Since then, I’ve been shortlisted numerous times for prizes I did not win, experiences curiously less entertaining. Having entered the less-than-charmed statistical world in which the chances of beating four or five other candidates are no better than 20 per cent, I would approach yet another shortlisting with mild dread. It seems impossible to resist getting your hopes up, and impossible to cultivate a perfect indifference. Yet runner-up shortlisting consumes a considerable amount of energy and time, at the end of which you’ve nothing to show. You feel like a chump.

Despite widespread dubiety about the selection process, it’s easy to see why big awards like the Booker continue to entice book buyers. The imprimatur is simply another recommendation, one probably as reliable as a thumbs-up from a fellow book-club member. Yet the modest gamble is no greater than the purchase of any other book.

In the main, literary awards lend small-pond drama to an occupation whose daily pursuit is dull. They provide the year a more mountainous topography, otherwise a dreary plain. They sell a few copies, and supply the industry bursts of publicity. As Lost for Words illustrates, they are tempting to pillory, but pretty harmless overall.

For most of us, book prizes are just a great excuse for a party. Thus I nurse a sole regret about the year I won the Orange: my acceptance speech went on forever. I failed to appreciate how fiercely the audience was chafing to snag another glass of free champagne. Give me a second chance by forking over that capricious, corrupt, hopelessly arbitrary Booker, and I promise to keep it short.