No two people read the same book. So if reading is such a subjective experience, the idea of trying to decide conclusively which books are ‘best’ is clearly absurd. Years ago, I blogged about the difficulties I have with the widely used 5 star rating scheme. Yet still every year, panels of judges sit down to hand down prizes to books and every year, feathers are ruffled. In 2019, the Booker Prize awarded two joint winners. Lots of people were very annoyed. In 2020, they haven’t shortlisted The Mirror and the Light. Once again, lots of people. Very annoyed. Including Hilary Mantel who had obviously been hoping for a hat-trick. And I find myself pondering as I do every year – how far do literary awards manipulate the way we look at books?
The most obvious benefit of a literary award is the boost to discoverability. With the collapse of the Net Book Agreement, it really doesn’t pay to write fiction. Even successful authors can often only afford to do it as a side hustle. Bagging a place on the shortlist for a high profile award such as the Booker is one of the only ways to get yourself the kind of sales that would allow you to actually give up the day job. It also doesn’t hurt that most of the bigger prizes tend to come with a nice chunk of cash, making for a significant boost to annual income.
So far, so good economic sense. But it’s this concept of the ‘best’ that gets my back up. My partner is a huge fan of Inside No. 9 and the episode ‘And the Winner Is‘ captures a lot of the cliches around any kind of award within the arts. There’s the nominees who shouldn’t win because they won it last time. Incidentally, this happened to me at school when I won the English prize in Year Seven and then wasn’t considered for it in Year Eight or Nine. Weirdly, that didn’t bother me at the time but I do think it wasn’t fair. It’s the opposite of celebrating excellence. Then there’s the nominees who should have won in a previous year but were unfairly robbed and then get waved through in a subsequent year with an inferior book. Being honest, this does seem to have been what happened in 2019 with Margaret Atwood and The Testaments. It was … all right. But it was also the sequel to the iconic The Handmaid’s Tale which famously didn’t win in 1986. As a footnote here, they gave the prize that year to Kingsley Amis. Yes, that Kingsley Amis. Oh, the irony.
There are also times when the Booker Prize panel plainly just got it wrong. I remember my book group read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam and we all wondered by what criteria it could possibly have been judged the best book of 1998. If you haven’t read it – don’t bother. It’s pointlessly nasty and also weirdly transphobic. Plus it is potentially the reason why McEwan then went on to not win in 2001 for Atonement. My personal theory though is that said loss has a lot to do with strong thematic similarities between Atonement and The Blind Assassin which had actually won in 2000. Alternatively, Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang is also just a blinder of a book.
Essentially, winning the Booker Prize seems to be no firm guarantee of longevity. Even though the Booker website boasts of the various famous authors that they have celebrated, it struck me so many of these are already fading. Iris Murdoch has particularly fallen out of favour. Julian Barnes has described the Booker Prize selection process as a ‘game of posh bingo’. I would tend to agree with him. In 2014, I followed the shortlisting and judging process very closely. I had received an early review copy of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and it was genuinely exciting to see the book gain traction, positive reviews and finally reach victory. I remember reading fellow nominee We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and thinking that it didn’t stand a chance. It was like following an election campaign. But while I adored Deep North, it was also a scorchingly painful read and not one that I am likely to revisit. And given that it is also borderline unfilmable, I am unsure how well-known it is six years on.
The problem is that the Booker Prize and many like it do have the suspicious whiff of Book Snobbery. In 2011, former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion complained that the Booker Prize shortlist for that year was ‘too readable’. Phrases are thrown around such as ‘aimed towards an intelligent audience’, or celebrating ‘quality literature’. They’re inoffensive words on their own but they represent part of a wider issue. Genre fiction is serious under-represented on award shortlists. I have posted before about the blurred line between literary fiction and other genres and I don’t want to repeat myself but I hate, hate, hate that deep-rooted assumption that slapping the word ‘literary’ on a novel makes it somehow ‘better’. I firmly believe that Terry Pratchett was one of the wittiest and most intelligent writers of the twentieth century and yet the literary establishment tended to sneer upon him. Well, more fool them. He was the UK’s highest selling author throughout the 1990s.
I started looking at the ‘grown up’ shelves of the bookshop when I was about fifteen years old. I never really went in for Young Adult. Back then, I would definitely have considered whether a book had won an award as a marker for whether or not to buy. These days, I pay very little heed. An ex-colleague once mentioned that her mother bought her the whole Booker prize shortlist every year and while that is a lovely family tradition, in reading terms it sounded like a lot of work. For me, I don’t tend to find the Booker prize shortlist particularly ‘fun’. I will look slightly more closely at the Costa prize and in terms of non-fiction, I tend to think that an award can be a useful indicator of readability. After all, there’s a big difference between being good at researching a topic and being good at actually writing about it. But more than anything – I’m more secure now in where my next step in my own reading adventure. I can love a book and be fully aware that it is a bit daft (hello Outlander) and I can loathe a book while recognising its artistry (most of Shirley Jackson’s creative output) but after a certain point, I do want to read books that I actually enjoy. I am in my thirties, I have a child and a job and a houseful of responsibilities. I am past the point of being guilted into reading books just because I feel I ‘should’.
So – does a nomination for a literary prize make you pick up a book? What role do book prizes play in your reading?