News of plans to start a new literary prize in response to the decline of the Man Booker's reputation are welcome but, if one ponders it for more than five minutes, the surprise is that it has taken so long for the literary establishment (whence the new idea originates though they won't like me for saying it) to realise something was radically wrong. To suggest that a literary prize should be awarded solely on literary merit rather than basing the award on the usual British populist criteria is hardly a startling piece of innovative cultural "blue skies thinking". It should be bleedin' obvious. But at least the focus is on the right issue: what should be considered excellent, rather than the usual prize preoccupations about which favoured person should be given an award they don't need by one of their friends who received it last time they were a judge etc etc. The tangled web of favouritism and conventionality routinely ensnares the usual suspects and there is a certain type of 'prize writer' (especially in the poetry world, where it can be seen in sharper relief because that world is so small) who is, as the Italian Catholics say of cardinals who are potential Popes – papabile – or designed to win prizes.
But what concerns me is that the very people advocating this new incorruptible, aesthetically pure prize are the same ones who control the levers of literary power: the agents and publishers, however laudably critical they might be of the current mess, who, the rest of the time, are solemnly telling authors that "no one wants" anything other than genre fiction, that X and Y will no longer sell, etc etc.
Let there be prizes. Let there be more prizes. But let there also be publishers of vision, ambition, originality, daring. And let pigs fly in a beautiful, curving arc across the roseate dawn sky.