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…