Literary Prizes

booker prize collageHaving served on several literary award committees, ranging from local ones like the Northern California Book Awards to national gigs like serving as an NEA panelist, I recognized something of the process revealed in forty years of recollections of Booker Prize judges, as reported in the Guardian recently.

If you are going to participate in this sort of thing you have to focus on the promotional benefits, the advantages to the winning and shortlisted authors, and the value to readers of having good books brought to their attention. Because if you focus on the process or the fairness of the results, you will go mad. As one of the judges, Hillary Mantel, says, “I’m glad I was a Booker judge relatively early in my career. It stopped me thinking that literary prizes are about literary value. Even the most correct jury goes in for horsetrading and gamesmanship, and what emerges is a compromise.”

James Wood adds: “The absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism). In practice, judge A blathers on about his favourite novel for five minutes, and then judge B blathers on about her favourite novel for five minutes, and nothing changes: no one switches sides. That is when the horse-trading begins.”

Ah, the horse trading. “The choice of PH Newby’s Something to Answer For, Frank Kermode reports about the 1963 prize, “was the result of a compromise. Dame Rebecca [West] didn’t dislike it as much as nearly all the others.” Beryle Bainbridge recalls of the 1997 process: “All I can remember of the final meeting is that I got terribly tired, I literally sank lower and lower under the table. Brendan Gill, who I thought was American, went towards the balcony saying he was going to throw himself off, he was so fed up. Philip Larkin was completely silent most of the time. Nobody dared say a word to him and he never said a word back.”

Of course there were judges such as Saul Bellow who dealt with the process with aplomb. Antonia Fraser says, “I shared a taxi back with fellow judge Saul Bellow on a long, long ride from somewhere in the City: he was nattily dressed in a pale green shantung suit, blue shirt, green tie with large blue dots on it; his silver hair and slanting, large dark eyes made him look like a 30s film star playing a refined gangster. Suddenly he leaned forward and asked: ‘Has anyone ever told you that you’re a very handsome woman?’ I pondered on a suitable reply, modest yet encouraging. But having spoken, the Great Man closed his eyes and remained apparently asleep for the rest of the journey.” And George Steiner seems pleased with his experience, humbly noting of the panel of which he was a part, “It was the most illustrious panel in the Booker’s history.”

But on the whole the process appears remarkably random. As Jonathan Coe says, “How very arbitrary it seems, in retrospect. There was nothing wrong with our shortlist, and nothing wrong with our winner (Last Orders, by Graham Swift), but at 12 years’ distance, it feels as though we could easily have chosen another six novels altogether.” Which leads Paul Bailey to conclude, “There are many things I regret doing, and being a judge for the Booker prize is one of them. For some years after I was associated with two novels I absolutely loathed and would not have even started reading in other circumstances.”

David Lodge’s judgment is worth giving the final word to: “the overtly competitive nature of these prizes, heightened by the publication of longlists and shortlists, takes its psychological toll on writers; and, given the large element of chance in the composition and operation of judging panels, the importance now attached to prizes in our literary culture seems excessive. A committee is a blunt instrument of literary criticism.”


Image via the Guardian


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