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The art of prize-fighting

Prizes are a vital part of the modern market for serious literature, but they're also increasingly flawed and compromised. At their best, however, they can still be an important mechanism for ensuring literature's future as a public art

By Tom Chatfield   January 2009

It is a central paradox of writing that true greatness only becomes apparent over time, and yet that the judgements of the future are substantially dependent on what the present chooses to publish, publicise and preserve. Viewed from the pinnacles of hindsight, literary history looks like a stately procession of great texts. A snapshot taken at any particular moment, however, reveals a far messier business; one clogged with readers, writers, commercial obligations, prejudices and misconceptions. Everything we might call the canon of literature—those enduring works that collectively form a standard we judge others by—is busily being forged or maintained within…

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