Thoughts on the Literature Prize

I’ve been following with interest – and some bemusement – the kerfuffle surrounding the shortlist (and the longlist before it) of this year’s Man Booker Prize. There was a fair amount of commentary (not necessarily by people who had read the books) to the effect that the judges had somehow failed in their task to select the titles they considered the best from the pool of submissions (in some quarters, opinion seemed to be that the judges had failed in their task to shortlist The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst). These arguments struck me as unconvincing because they sought to dismiss the shortlist (or longlist) out of hand, rather than engage with the books selected.

One of the key points of contention has concerned comments made by the judges on the ‘readability’ of their choices; this issue surfaced again today in the announcement of the Literature Prize, a new award being positioned as an alternative to the Booker. In the words of the Prize’s board, as reported by The Bookseller:

[The Literature Prize] will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of…expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition…For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize’s administrator and this year’s judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement…

I think there’s something of a false opposition being made, there, between the concepts of ‘readability’ and ‘artistic achievement’ (isn’t a novel of any stripe a failure if it doesn’t make its readers want to turn the page?); but, more than this, the Literature Prize feels – from its name downwards – like a kneejerk reaction to this year’s Booker shortlist. One shortlist – one jury’s definition of ‘best’ – with which you disagree does not make the entire enterprise flawed.

I wish the Literature Prize well, and hope it brings to light some excellent and interesting books; but I also hope it can come to a more positive and robust sense of what it wants to achieve.

4 Comments

  1. I agree with you that without influencing readership there is a little meaning in literature prize. Such prizes can only influence to a small extent and may bring people to notice the book but still the book should be good enough on its own for readers to appreciate it.
    http://iandbooks.wordpress.com/

  2. I’m really looking forward to seeing the long list for The Literature Prize! I can just imagine the debate about what is/isn’t included.

    I do think that the Booker has got it wrong this year and (with the exception of Barnes) chosen enjoyable books, without lasting, literary merit, but I think that is something the Booker prize people need to address. The Booker prize is such a strong brand that it will be really hard for a new prize to compete.

  3. There’s something wrong with the Booker remit when the standard of the novels swings so widely from year to year. “Best” novel is such a generic criteria – it can be interpreted to suit tastes of each judging panel. Zippability was the buzzword this year – but, when I ask you, did zippability become the key criterion of a literary award? I too think the Booker prize has abdicated its responsibility to find the best literary novel. Now there’s a gap in the market and the Literature Prize is about to fill it. I look forward to the longlist.

  4. I always feel that ‘Readability’ is a really strange and wishy-washy term. Writers like David Foster Wallace used hundreds of pages of endnotes to deliberately disrupt the linear process of reading, whereas Michael Cisco likes using lots of purposefully misapplied commas and contradictions and grammatically non-standard expression to suggest otherness and hint to the reader that something’s not quite right – both are brilliant writers despite (maybe even because of…?) how tricky they can be to read.

    – but I agree entirely with you that ‘readability’ and ‘artistic merit’ aren’t at all the polar opposites that the Literature Prize’s board (or whoever) seem to suggest.

    But like everyone, I’m keen to see what they’re going to nominate to their longlist – maybe China Mieville will finally get a long-deserved nod from the mainstream literary media – which’ll confirm what us genre dorks have known for years – that he’s one of the world’s best writers! 🙂

    Tomcat.

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