What are awards for, exactly? To anoint? To confirm? To spotlight? To reward? To give somebody a break? When W.B. Yeats was called at his home in the middle of the night by his agent informing him he had just won the Nobel Prize for literature, the world’s greatest poet replied of the world’s greatest award, ‘How much is it?’ Lord knows there is nothing belittling about needing the cheque.
Winners are almost always results of subjective debates, unless they are open to a wider vote, in which case they are now most often the result of effective campaigning. Public votes will always be given to the most popular, of course; who, ever, dialled a number thinking, ‘this wasn’t my favourite, but I admired the structural adventurism of the one I will vote for, as I think structural adventurism deserves its moment in the sun!’? The popular vote is always the one that the winner says means the most. But it is the one that really means the least, because it is open to manipulation; pick up some votes by looking good, not offending anyone, or congratulating a royal on the birth of a baby. Popularity is rarely vindication of good work, after all.
The most prestigious of awards tend to have a panel of roving judges, made up of a critic, a celebrity with some kind of vague connection to books, maybe a writer or an academic. These awards are the ones the media really like to get their teeth into as they can often provide some kind of dramatic narrative of their own. People’s Choice awards are very difficult to fence in this way; for a start a negative dramatic narrative would involve, most likely, the consumers of the media output. Small panels are more likely to make controversial decisions. Controversy is when awards start to pick up media coverage outside the industry norms, and that is when the sales begin to move.
Of course controversy is, in reality, quite rare, and the reasons for this have been well-discussed over the years. The main reason for the middle-of-the-road decisions at so many awards ceremonies is that the panel members have had to eventually agree on something, and true passion is as stubborn in opposition as it is in championing. Winners are often the compromise.
That is not to detract from the achievement and significance of the winners, but it is meant to suggest that it is rarely to prizes we should look to see the future.
Awards now are integral marketing tools, especially to publishers. Within hours of the announcement for the longlist nominees of this year’s Man Booker Prize, the publishers of those nominated were tweeting extracts from the books, discount prices soon to follow. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. But there is a little of the serpent eating its tale about it. Awards are industry canons from which new books are fired into the mainstream from way behind the frontline; they are the chance for the publishers to make their own trends and narratives, and largely cut the retailers and distributors out of the battle altogether. This means that, if they so wished, publishers could completely alter the intellectual habits of the nation. Give us the new Beckett, the new Calvino, throw up the new century’s Alfred J Prufrock. They hardly ever do this. Awards are now, in publishing, a large part of the machine that is always complaining how difficult it is to keep the show on the road.
And this is why I was surprised, nay shocked, to see Rhian Edwards take the top prize (as well as two others, including the People’s Choice award) at Wales Book of the Year 2013. I was sitting with critic Jasper Rees for the ceremony, and we both agreed that the English language category would go to John Harrison for his marvellous exploration into the ambitions and obsessions of Arctic explorers. Award panels love the Polar Regions, we said. James Smythe was in with a shout for his novel The Testimony, a muscular and thought-provoking work from a prolific and exciting young writer. Before the winner was announced a thought came to me; that if Rhian Edwards was to win (which I doubted very much, even in a field of three), not only would she be a very worthy winner (her collection of poems Clueless Dogs is a superb début), but it would mean something beyond what awards can normally achieve. Across both Welsh and English language categories, Edwards was the most exciting, fresh and original voice – amongst a particularly strong set this year. There is nothing about meeting in the middle about her work, nothing about compromise. Okay, so she’s perhaps more Billy Collins than TS Eliot, and her work is very funny, (and, as someone who has sat on awards panels in the past, when the sun is dipping, the coffee is cooling and you’re nowhere nearer to a decision in some dank basement room somewhere, humour can carry a great deal of weight) – but Clueless Dogs, and Edwards herself, a ukulele-playing performance poet, is not a typical award winner.
Wales Arts Review has recently been discussing in some depth the exciting new movement in Welsh arts. There are several reasons why the conversation has moved from the editorial meetings and the pub alcoves and into our pages. Devolution has brought us the establishment of several national arts institutions that are young and vibrant and risk-taking. Hand in hand with this there is also an attitude in Wales’s writers and artists that is more forward and upward and outward looking than it has ever been before. Rhian Edwards embodies this spirit entirely, with her sharp American-inflected verse, most certainly more Dorothy Parker than Gillian Clarke. That the panel who selected her for the award have been unable to deny it her is yet more testament to the exciting and rich immediate future of Welsh arts of which Edwards has long destined to become. In the year preceding an unprecedented institutional push to brand our nation as the country of one single alcoholic philandering party-crashing celebrity roustabout, the Wales Book of the Year has been given to a poet of the future in a time when the national attention should be turned to the talent we have now, rather than the talent that so proudly expunged at the bar of the White Horse in New York sixty years ago. Credit to the judges, and enormous congratulations to Rhian Edwards, for this year’s award will be remembered as an important moment in the journey to the new Wales.