“All must have prizes” declare those who watch the annual round of prizes – but while this seems true for some, it certainly isn’t that case for most.
Prizes are the signs by which an outstanding author is supposed to be recognised as, well, outstanding. Those who do not win or get short-listed are expected to keep quiet about this, to humbly accept the passing of judgement by a committee on our work, and to keep on keeping on. After all, we all know the joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee. We have all learnt that “de gustibus non est dispuntandum,” and that taste varies widely. As time goes by, however, it can seem more like being entered for a game show in which you are there only to be failed.
At the start of a career as an author, there are a multitude of prizes of offer for the debut author. In my own field, literary fiction, there is the Somerset Maugham, the Betty Trask, the David Higham, the John Lewellyn Rhys, the Author’s Club, the Costa Prize First Book Award, the Guardian First Book Prize and more all await with cheques ranging from £500 to many thousands of pounds. To put a debut novel on, say, the long-list of the Man Booker or the Women’s Prize when so many prizes exist specifically for first novels is either an extraordinary vote of confidence in a new talent – or an exasperatingly frivolous choice. To those who have had to rise early, work at week-ends and holidays to write as well as earn a living, the experience can seem full of hope and encouragement. You have not just been published, you have succeeded – two very different things. However, if none of these come your way, the picture is less rosy.
You try again. You are published again. You “fail better”. You still rise early and work at weekends because by now it is sinking in that almost no author can afford to give up the day job to focus on writing. Then you’re over thirty-five, and no longer “young”. The Somerset Maugham, the Sunday Times, the Betty Trask are all closed. Bad luck if you’re just getting going.
I belong to the generation of novelists that emerged into the first big recession of the 1980s overshadowed by the enormous, TV-fuelled success of the Amis-McEwan-Barnes generation. The Granta 1993 Best of Young British Novelists list included short-story writers, those with just one novel to their name and thriller-writers like Philip Kerr (who, is so happened, drew up the list.) The original list missed out Hilary Mantel, but my own absent peers include Helen Dunmore, Louise Doughty, Kate Clanchy, Andrea Levy, Liz Jensen, Kate Atkinson, Tracy Chevalier, Pat Ferguson, and Linda Grant. You may notice that we all have something else in common. Age is a feminist issue, and many of those left out did not get going until over forty. This effect is multiplied for writers of colour, who are disabled, who are LGBQT and who are (in addition to earning a living) doing child-care.
The Granta list is and was a marketing exercise. So, in effect, are prizes. These are a relatively recent development in literature: part, you might say, of the post-War professionalisation of literary culture. Before the Booker (1969) was invented as a PR effort for a food distribution company that had run into union trouble, British authors might hope for nothing more than the Nobel. But the plethora really got going in the 1970s and since. For women (the Women’s Prize, formerly the Orange/Bailey’s). For writers of enjoyable literary fiction, (the Costa, formerly the Whitbread). For BAME authors (the Jalak). For authors over 60 (the Paul Torday). For authors living in particular parts of Britain (the Yorkshire Post). For novels that are historical (Walter Scott), or experimental (Goldsmith’s) or of Jewish interest (JW Wingate) or in some way the best in the English language (the Man Booker). They have become such a feature of literary life that to admit that you are not only not an “award-winning novelist” but not even short-listed, ever, feels like a badge of dishonour. In addition to all the usual self-doubt and struggle, there is the extra one. I call it prizeitis.
Nobody, or at least nobody sane, writes a novel to win a prize. Julian Barnes described the Booker, memorably, as “posh bingo”, and (to a member of a golden generation still endlessly promoted by the media) such dismissiveness is appropriately lofty. Yet novelists are, by and large, not like this. We are not rich, famous or defended personalities. We tend to be the kind of quiet, nerdy people who got bullied at school, and the opposite to the media portrayal of novelists as aggressively confident and conceited. Having to get out and flog our books at literary festivals as well as write the bloody things does not come naturally to those whose defining characteristic is that we prefer to spend most of every day alone.
Having sat on several prize juries for a variety of different genres of book, I have a lively appreciation of how chancy the whole business is and how just one judge with a bee in their bonnet can derail a process that should be impartial. The recent fashion for a jury to include a celebrity has been questionable even before you consider how many fine actors are dyslexic but even serious prizes such as the Costa and the Women’s Prize now include these. In my experience, the celebrity is too busy to turn up for the meetings, getting a PA to email in their “thoughts” in return for the fee. This, presumably, is intended to add glamour to the dowdy book world.
Other judges deemed suitable for a literary prize include book-buyers for supermarket chains, magazine columnists, media stars, talent scouts and newspaper editors. All of these will be intelligent, well-intentioned people but their appointees fail to consider this: Judging is not for the faint-hearted though it is (in abstract) a labour of love. People who claim to love reading may well do so but what they are thinking of is enjoying books they have chosen for pleasure. Having the stamina to be able to read several books a week that are not immediately to their taste – and to understand why these might still be worth rewarding – is another matter.
Significant reader stamina and responsibility is what you find in librarians, literary critics, booksellers, academics and fellow authors. Given the quantity, it’s usual for books to be divided up between judges – each being given 20%, with only the Chair being expected to read the entire year’s submission. In some prizes, there is no overlap so even if a judge has read and loved a book on another judge’s list, that book can’t be called in if the latter has dismissed it. This happened the year that I judged the Whitbread Novel Award (now the Costa) and it is why a notable novel, David Lodge’s Author Author, did not get on. Edward St Aubyn’s satire on literary prizes, Lost For Words (written after his masterpiece Mother’s Milk was overlooked for the 2006 Booker in favour of Anita Desai’s first novel) has more than a grain of truth.
For a prize to reflect merit there needs to be a level playing-field, but this is not the case. It is my strong suspicion that all kinds of things from the halo effect of certain publishers to a prolonged marketing campaign play a part – for none of us is immune to marketing. Whether the Man Booker will remain open to nominations from America is currently in doubt given the way it has afflicted the unique character of the prize, but the win by two American novels in succession is arguably less a reflection of superior quality than of superior spending. Even a moderately interesting American novel, published in a market that is five times bigger than our own, will have more fanfare: how else to explain the 2017 Booker short-listing of Paul Auster’s 4321 when to many it was a markedly inferior version of the same idea as Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2014), wholly ignored by the same?
To those outside publishing, prizes may seem an irrelevance – the cherry on the cake of being published. Few best-sellers win prizes, and fewer prizes now have the power to make a difficult book like The Luminaries into a best-seller.
If, however, you understand that the difference between a prize and no prize is as serious for professional authors as, say, becoming a hospital consultant is for a doctor or a QC is for a lawyer, it becomes less trivial. These selections have an immediate effect on careers. Many book-clubs and libraries now buy books solely on whether they have had recognition from a prize, which has its own marketing budget to promote the chosen. At a time when advances and publishers’ marketing budgets have shrunk to barely sustainable levels, to get onto even the long-list of a prize gives a real boost in terms of visibility and sales.
Every single stage of a prize matters commercially, including being submitted in the first place. Most authors are not, because each imprint can only submit two books. Big international groups can support a variety of imprints and play the system, but the costs for a small independent are punishing. Yet the latter are precisely what will take the risk on authors who have failed to break through in the past.
There is a further rider to all this which is: to those who have shall be given. It’s not unusual for a book to ratchet up a string of awards, and for future books by an award-winning author to do the same. Whether this is because a writer really is head and shoulders above the other contenders or because judges fear making themselves look silly is a moot point. What is certain is, if you have not been short-listed for anything, ever, the chances are that this will continue.
This is my own situation. After almost thirty years as a novelist with just one long-listing for one book, I am resigned to never getting anywhere with any prize. I will continue to write, because it is what I do, but I am periodically depressed by prizeitis, as are hundreds of other “overlooked” authors, some of whom are inexplicably without an agent or publisher. The resolution to keep on keeping on in the face of what feels like discouragement takes up mental energy that should be going into writing.
However benign the intention when prizes are founded, I dislike a system which pits authors against each other with a narrative of winners and losers. Rivalry, bitterness, spite and competition have no place in what we do. I think I would feel this even if I were to win a prize, because I like, love and admire a good many fellow novelists both living and dead, and the very best lived and worked in an age when prizes did not exist. I know I am a practitioner of an art, rather than a profession. I know that Dickens, Austen, Keats and EM Forster would not have won prizes either. We are not doctors or lawyers or actors, and our talent lies outside a system of trials or talent-shows. At a time when literary fiction has never been more embattled, it is worth asking whether the prize culture is helping, or hindering, our survival. “All must have prizes” was uttered, if you recall, by the Dodo.