Bored of the Booker: prizes, prizes, everywhere

Saturday 20 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Fountain Room

The decision of the Pulitzer Prize 2012 board not to award the prize for fiction once again focused attention on the role of literary awards. Some praised the brave and unusual step of the selection committee for feeling they genuinely couldn’t choose between the novels of David Foster Wallace, Karen Russell and Denis Johnson. Yet, for others, it represented an opportunity missed in terms of boosting sales and raising the profile of any would-be winners. On the other side of the Atlantic, the perception that the 2011 Booker Prize privileged ‘readability’ over artistic merit provoked leading literary figures to devise the Literature Prize to ‘establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence’. Yet the Literature Prize merely joins an ever-expanding list of possible garlands for published authors, most notably the Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), Costa Book Award, the Guardian First Book Award, the Warwick Prize for Writing, the James Tait Memorial Prize… Today, some argue, not being awarded a prize, or even refusing one, is more of a mark of distinction than winning an award.

Critics of prizes generally dismiss them as cynical marketing ploys from publishers or as exercises in elitism, largely governed by literary cliques and fashions. For their defenders, they provide a vital role in developing and supporting new writers, while offering an essential dose of critical judgement in the public arena. Yet with judging panels increasingly made up of celebrities and other non-literary figures (and sometimes being done away with altogether in favour of a popular vote) there seems to be a certain unease from both sides over what role the public should play in proceedings, and a lack of consensus over what constitutes excellence and artistic value or makes a work challenging. The decision to award obscure Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011 can hardly be said to have generated a popular interest in his work.

Are literary prizes part of a healthy critical culture, or do they risk becoming an unhappy replacement for it? While plenty are willing to criticise a culture of ‘all must have prizes,’ is it true that being unwilling to make judgements (on a variety of criteria) is just as corrosive to literature? Are some prizes better than others? Who are the real winners, and are there any losers?

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Damian Barr
writer and salonierre; creator and host, Shoreditch House Literary Salon; author, Maggie and Me

Miguel Fernandes Ceia
writer, critic and translator; editorial assistant, Writers' Hub; contributor, Culture Wars

Professor Russell Celyn Jones
director, Creative Writing Programme, Birkbeck College, University of London

Alexandra Pringle
group editor-in-chief, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
Miguel Fernandes Ceia writer, critic and translator; editorial assistant, Writers' Hub; contributor, Culture Wars
Recommended readings
Forget the Booker, the prize every author really wants is academic validation

There's so many prizes today's writers aren't bothered about who wins. The purpose awards serve now is to tell readers what to read.

Miguel Ceia, Independent, 16 October 2012

A loss for words

Literary prizes exist to give dog shows a good name. Most literary prizes get it mostly wrong.

Richard Flanagan, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 2012

Orange is not the only fruit: why book prizes, not sponsors, matter to writers

Prizes give one novelist a chance; a chance to go on writing, to produce a body of work, to do so without financial anxiety.

Linda Grant, Guardian, 22 May 2012

What’s wrong with a readable book?

Good writers write good books; excellent writers write good books people buy, read and enjoy in great and lasting numbers. Prizes that call people’s attention to books like that are good; those that actively discourage them are just ridiculous.

Bert Archer, Star, 22 October 2011

How the National Book Awards made themselves irrelevant

The NBA has come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not.

Laura Miller, Salon, 12 October 2011

And the winner is?

We enjoy the glamour of a Booker or an Oscar night, but we lose something too in this orgy of awards.

Jason Cowley, Guardian, 22 October 2006

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