"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Sunday, 7 August 2011

The Prize Obsession

I can recall reading somewhere that there are so many literary prizes it is difficult to avoid winning one.  Let me reassure you, it is perfectly easy.  Having published fifteen books I have yet to win a prize – though I was on a shortlist of six for the 2003 Marsh Biography Prize and took my charity shop tuxedo out of mothballs for the dinner where Brenda Maddox deservedly pipped us all to the post.  Naturally everyone would like to win because there is usually some cash, sometimes a lot of it, and it does wonders for sales but one doesn't have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how, as with most other aspects of the English literary world, the usual rules of engagement apply. These can be summed up briefly: make sure you know the right people. In the case of major poetry prizes: really make sure you know the right people.

In a literary culture where reviewing is becoming ever more inadequate prizes start to become significant as a device for ranking books so it's no surprise that publishers get so excited about them.  Independent-minded readers don't need them because they award their own prizes in their head.

Which brings me to the Man Booker which never quite seems to get it right in contrast to the much more reliable (in my view) Goncourt in France which has (a) no musical chair-changing celebrity judges (b) a cash award of 10 euros and (b) a very good track record.  I was interested to see Boyd Tonkin in The Independent on Friday proposing something which sounded rather like the Goncourt.  Over to you Boyd:

Not the Man Booker Prize?

I refuse to criticise the Man Booker long-list. I've done that job; it's tough. You can't begin to satisfy the clamour of competing voices in your head, let alone in the world outside (established stars vs newcomers; large vs small firms; British novelists vs the rest, and so on). Yet as I began to tally my cherished casualties this year (Michael Ondaatje, Graham Swift, Ali Smith, Justin Cartwright, Andrew Miller, Francesca Kay... ), as well as other critics', a subversive idea took shape. Perhaps we need a new prize. As well as, not instead of. Only for UK authors or else permanent British residents. The same jury of genuine authorities (writers, teachers, critics) every year. No submissions from publishers; just selections by the judges. No thought of striking a balance between ages, genders, genres, publishers. Above all, an uncompromising, single-minded commitment to excellence in the art of fiction. Howls of complaint against "elitism" would pierce the air. Publishers would hate it. And novelists would kill to win.

[The Independent, 5 August 2011 by Boyd Tonkin]

A Postcript

It has been pointed out to me that the Goncourt is not necessarily such a good model and that is had its fair share of weird choices and has attracted accusations of being controlled by a cabal of publishers etc etc.  All I can say is that its last three choices which I have read have been more satisfying to me than the Booker choices.


Anonymous said...

As one small example of the mania surrounding literary prizes today, and the forms of odd behaviour to which they drive authors and publishers, I would like to nominate the case of a writer (known to me) who has spent the last several months describing himself as 'nominated for the Man Booker Prize', in the sense that his publisher had filled out a form, I presume, and entered him for this competition. Is this not abject behaviour?

Nicholas Murray said...

It certainly would seem so!