In Defence of Prizes

by Gavin Freeguard

One of the interweaving plotlines in Sebastian Faulks’ latest novel, the state-of-the-nation A Week in December, revolves around the state of the literary world, and specifically, the state of literary prizes.

And what a state it is.

The Pizza Palace Award, the focus of one of the characters’ attention, gets a deep panning. It serves only to increase pizza sales – a winning book about Hitler is tastefully honoured with a vegetarian layer – and to provide employment for a public relations company. (And, of course, drinks for the witless glittering literati). Such is the proliferation of prizes that one of the characters, clutching her copy of a novel, ‘could barely see the photo on the jacket – a barefoot waif in a bomb site – for the prize sponsors’ bright stickers’; as her husband remarks, the book has ‘more endorsements than your driving licence’. Books are not books – they are simply commercial products like any other, and like the pizzas whose sales the prize seeks to increase.

If any of those things ever becomes true of the Orwell Prize, which I administer, you have – to paraphrase Sir Steve Redgrave – my permission to shoot me with the looks of disdain normally reserved by broadsheet reviewers for Dan Brown.

Prizes are not perfect. Many are set up by enterprising PR companies to provide themselves with work; the equivalent of going on an Easter egg hunt when you’ve laid all the eggs yourself (as it were).

Others are focused on raising the profile – or the finances – of the company associated with the prize (consider the university spending tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds on a prize to raise its profile).

Prizes can be led into the temptation of rewarding that which is shocking and different, rather than that which is simply good; less the shock of the new, than a philistine flock to it.

And of course, as St George himself once wrote, ‘The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them.’ Prizes in any part of the arts world can overlook outstanding works: Richard Burton, Peter Sellers and Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar between them; Radiohead have been shortlisted four times for the Mercury Prize without ever winning; I find myself enthusiastically recommending books which weren’t even longlisted for the Orwell Prize (‘the ones that got away’ would make a great feature, should any literary editors be reading). Great works sometimes don’t satisfy the entry criteria, don’t jump out at judges in the inevitably limited time available, or simply don’t jump out at the judges at all. For all the rules and regulations you can implement to ensure their integrity, for all the work you put in to getting both quantity and quality of entries, for all the rigour rules and regulations can inject into a judging process, it remains a subjective choice by a selection of human beings. If you disagree with the judges’ choice, it doesn’t mean that the process is corrupt, the judges ignorant, the prize worthless; it simply means you disagree with the judges’ choice, and they with yours. We must accept prizes for what they are, and not imbue them with an unrealistic omniscience: a prize winner can only ever be the best of the entries received, within the criteria set, according to the taste of those judging the prize, in the time available.

If we accept those limitations – and that not all prizes would themselves win prizes for virtue or value – we can see the benefit prizes have for the author, for the publisher, and for the public. For the author, a prize is at the very least a pat on the back, a vocal ‘well done’, a recognition and affirmation of their talent. The importance of the financial boon should also not be underestimated. But it can also introduce a wider audience to their work and their message – literary editor of The Guardian, Claire Armitstead, admitted to ‘the faintest twinge of regret from those of us who have always regarded her as our secret’ upon Hilary Mantel’s Booker win. From an Orwell Prize perspective, Delia Jarrett-Macauley described winning as a ‘serendipitous gift’ which provided ‘the most elegant acknowledgement of the novel’s intentions, accessibility and merit’, while Raja Shehadeh’s win was swiftly followed by an honour from the Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, ‘a testament to the creativity which still can flourish under the most difficult conditions faced by a people’.

Mantel’s recent win also demonstrates the benefit for the publisher: credit not only in terms of a job well done, but in the bank. Thomas Cromwell divorced Robert Langdon from the top of the bestseller charts as a result of Wolf Hall’s triumph – no mean feat – although such financial success can sometimes be offset by financial barriers to entry. Catheryn Kilgarriff, MD of Marion Boyars Publishers, recently blamed prizes in part for the closing of the company: ‘Even if I get a book on a shortlist I couldn't afford the fee, so I no longer wanted to win prizes.’

I would argue that the most significant benefit a prize can – and should – have is on the public. Prizes are useful as signposts in an increasingly ‘infobese’ world, where criticism is democratised and the demands on our time legion. But prizes should also spark debate – and debate far more significant than whether a particular work is a novel or merely a novella. Longlists, shortlists, winners can all get the public talking about writing and its worth – about the skill of individual authors, the thrill of different genres and the effect they can have on each of us. Reading is, after all, about the interface between what the author has written and how the reader interprets it.

But beyond simply literary merit, the books recommended by prizes can change the way we see the world: good writing should make us think. At the Orwell Prize, for instance, we seek to reward good political writing, but also to encourage political thinking and enthuse the public about politics and journalism. In addition to awarding our annual prizes, we run discussions and debates around the country, bringing key writers and thinkers to the public. I might be biased (okay, I am biased), but it’s the sort of thing more prizes should be doing, when they can be easily dismissed as PR opportunities, as expensive irrelevances in an austere era, and as gilded metropolitan elites far divorced from the real world reinforcing their bubble with baubles and gold.

The characters in Faulks’ novel are all trying to escape the real world. The tube driver escapes to her fiction and online role playing; the literary critic to the 19th century; the hedge fund manager to worship Mammon; the Islamic extremist to worship Allah in Paradise. The literary world escapes to the Pizza Palace awards ceremony and its plaudits and product placement. Literary prizes are at their worst when they become wrapped up in their own worlds. They are at their most important when they embrace, engage with and enthuse the real world, real life, and real people.

Gavin Freeguard is the Administrator of the Orwell Prize,

Picture credit: Wiennat Mongkulmann

No comments: