literary awards

Eyes on the Prize: The Cultural Value of Literary Awards

Sam Pryce takes a look at the cultural value of the big literary prizes, and asks why Welsh authors, unlike Scotland and Ireland, get so roundly ignored.

When the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2018 was announced on 24th July, it caused something of a stir for its inclusion of a graphic novel, Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina. It was the first time a graphic novel had ever been included in the prize’s fifty-year history, and its judges—one of whom, Leanne Shapton, is a graphic novelist herself—described it as symbolic of the ‘changing shape of fiction’. The Prize also celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, marking the occasion with the Golden Man Booker — a special one-off award for the best winner of the prize since it was set up in 1969. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) came out on top. 

Evidently, literary prizes like the Man Booker have played an important role in shaping our ideas about literary value in the modern world, while also informing the canon of contemporary literature to some extent. Many Booker Prize-winning novels, like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Haend up becoming set texts in schools or on university courses. Others, like The English Patient or Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, are made into hit blockbusters. But is our culture of literary prize-giving a good thing? Do they have an impact upon the way we read fiction? Or, perhaps more importantly, the way we write fiction too?

There have always been prizes for literary achievement, from the laurel-leaf crown of the ancient world to Sweden’s prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to an entire body of work. But the kind of literary prizes we have today — in which a jury of judges deliver their verdict on the best book of the year — are a relatively recent phenomenon, rising rapidly over the last fifty years or so. Alongside the annual Man Booker Prize, there are an ever-increasing number of ‘category’ prizes: the Costa Book of the Year; the Women’s Prize for Fiction; the Goldsmiths Prize; the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; the Betty Trask Award (for best first novel); the Encore Award (for best second novel); the Walter Scott Prize (for best historical novel); the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize (for best comic novel), and so on… Some boast cash prizes, some merely honour, and others dishonour and ridicule, like the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award for the most toe-curling sex scene of the year.

Though we have a wealth of prizes to choose from, it seems that the books they champion are all rather similar. In the case of the Man Booker Prize, this is particularly true. There are always the usual suspects on the list: those somewhat predictable, well-behaved writers like Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan or Peter Carey. There has been much discussion of the ‘homogenised’ picture of the literary scene presented by the prize, especially after the 2014 inclusion of US writers. Issues of gender, race and especially class bias have come under criticism in the prize’s most tumultuous years.

For example, when James Kelman won the Man Booker Prize in 1994 for his novel How Late It Was, How Late, it sparked a wave of controversy and vitriol amongst literary critics and journalists, questioning the novel’s (and its author’s) integrity. On the surface, much of the objections took offence to the novel’s use of ‘profanity’, in particular the frequency of the word ‘fuck’ (with one tabloid estimating around 4,000 occurrences). For these critics, Kelman’s use of slang and dialect, writing as his Scottish working-class protagonist Sammy Samuels, signified the novel’s baseness and apparent lack of literary value. One member of the judging panel that year, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, had threatened to resign from her position altogether if Kelman’s novel was awarded the prize. After the announcement was made, awarding the author £20,000, Neuberger publicly denounced the decision, calling it ‘a disgrace.’ In many ways, Kelman’s novel made the 1994 Booker Prize one of the most contentious literary awards of all time, bringing issues such as class, background and national identity into the London-centric world of the literati. The literary establishment’s rejection of Kelman’s novel revealed disconcerting truths about elitism and class hatred amongst the British intelligentsia that remained prevalent, excluding people of certain classes and social backgrounds not only from artistic success and acclaim, but from being taken seriously at all.

Though the Booker has elicited some scandal in its choices, literary prizes in general try to offer some quality-controlled direction to readers daunted by the abundance of reading material nowadays. What’s more, in this day and age, the book industry needs literary prizes. Booker-longlisted writers can expect an immediate boost in sales, which can be hugely beneficial for the small independent publishers who are lucky enough to get their author(s) on the list. More recently, new prizes have been set up with the sole duty of recognising undiscovered or often unnoticed talent. The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize leads an annual hunt to find the year’s best book recommended by the newspaper’s readers, which may or may not tally with the assessment of the Man Booker judges. Elsewhere, The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, set up last year by Costa-shortlisted (and Bad Sex Award-shortlised) writer Neil Griffiths, recognises the best literary fiction published by smaller, independent publishers.

This recognition of overlooked talent can also be applied to Wales’s literary prizes. It’s quite astonishing how few Welsh authors seem to gain recognition from the major literary prizes. Bernice Rubens is the only Welsh Booker winner for The Elected Member in 1970. The contemporary Welsh literary scene is more or less ignored by the literati, compared to, say, Scottish or Irish writing which continually receive media coverage. The Wales Book of the Year Award, which this year was given to Robert Minhinnick’s poetry collection Diary of the Last Man, tries to address this problem, by celebrating the best in Welsh and English language writing by Welsh or Welsh interest authors.

It’s the smaller, more specialised prizes, outside of the now-oversaturated Booker, that are vital in attempting to redress the balance. In the end, the only true judge of a work of literature’s worth and value is time. Until then, those readers who won’t be around in a century’s time must rely on the signposts of prizes to point them to the best writers working today.