Views Editor Emily Hay explores how literary prizes are outdated and damaging to the public’s conception of a book’s worth.
It’s that time of year again: the shortlist for the Booker Prize has been announced, and the book world is in the full swing of speculation about just who’s going to bag that all-important £50,000 prize and an inimitable spot in literary history. For those who are avid spectators or participants in the literary world, the announcements of major literary prizes – the Booker in the UK, the Pulitzer in the US – are unmissable dates on the calendar, as important as the Olympics or the World Cup are for sports fans. It’s undoubtable that for those authors who beat the other books on their shortlist to secure their place in the limelight, literary prizes mean more publicity, better sales, and often more publishing deals – all on top of the cash prize itself. Yet, for almost everyone else, these “prestigious” literary prizes are arbitrary accolades which do very little to properly represent a year of literary endeavours.
The problem is that art, in all of its forms, is inherently subjective. A novel I would describe as life-changing might be one that you wouldn’t think twice about tossing into a box of charity shop donations, in the same way, that there might be someone out there who really loved the final season of Game of Thrones (although I will admit that one’s more of a stretch). And, despite what some literary scholars or publishing professionals might have you believe, there is no one person or group that is uniquely qualified to judge what the definitive literary work of the year is. In fact, there’s even reason to believe that often it isn’t the quality of the novels themselves that’s being judged, but the preceding reputation of the author or, even, one of their previous works. Anyone who had read both The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other before last year’s Booker Prize winner was announced, knew that no matter how exciting it was to have a follow up to the legendary The Handmaid’s Tale, Evaristo should never have been made to share that prize with a woman who had already earned her place in literary history, and was being honoured for a work that’s far from her best. How are newer authors, or those whose careers have flown under the radar, meant to gain any kind of recognition if they’re up against those who already have stratospheric reputations?
Another big issue that goes hand in hand with this is the fact that the judges of these prizes never give any reasoning as to why a certain book wins over the others. Granted, they are usually sworn to secrecy over the entire judging endeavour, but you would think that prizes which are held in such high regard in the literary world would want to draw attention to scholarship or popular literary criticism as a rule of thumb. Aside from just allowing more people to understand why a certain book was deemed worthy whilst another wasn’t, it really seems to me as though prestigious literary prizes should be using their platform to champion a connection with literature that is more than just skin-deep and goes beyond the summary level. It is problematic that they don’t suggest that they’re nothing more than competition for competition’s sake; a calendar event scheduled so that book focused media has something big to write about at regular intervals.
Not even all of those authors and publishers who make it onto the shortlists benefit much from the privilege. The costs involved mean that on the rare occasions that books published by smaller or non-traditional presses are chosen, they often have to drop out of the prize or face massive financial problems if they pay to go ahead with the competition but don’t win. To spell it out to you, the Booker demands a £5,000 payment from the publisher to their foundation for being on the shortlist. On top of this, the authors are often invited for interviews at countless media outlets and literary festivals, which may be fantastic publicity – but can cost publishers thousands in travel and accommodation expenses. Not to mention these media appearances are very often unpaid, but the busy nature of the schedule can mean that authors have no spare time to do any paid work in between. It would appear that the only financial gain in literary prizes is for that one in a million who wins.
Literary prizes are an outdated, elitist institution of a publishing industry which has been resisting calls to diversify for years. They can only ever showcase a select handful of books, and it’s dangerous that people regard shortlisted books so highly when they don’t even present a representative sample of all the myriad literary works published across a year. There are countless stories that deserve to be celebrated – not just those with their names in lights.