The 2019 Booker Prize Winner Announcement (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Books Columns

All shall have prizes

There are now so many awards that not winning one must seem a source of shame

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The Secret Author bought his first copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook back in the late 1970s. It was a stout paperback even then, but how much stouter has it grown in the intervening 45 years? To explain this doubling in size (and tenfold increase in price) we need only note that, as in every other branch of the arts, there is simply more of everything than there used to be: more books being published, more publishers, more literary agents, more editors, proofreaders and script-doctors. And of all the things that there are more of, the category most subject to creeping gigantism is, well, I never, literary prizes.

By the mid-1980s, “prize culture” was carrying all before it

The idea that writers should be given awards for the books they wrote came late to English literature. When the Secret Author first started putting pen to paper, the Writers’ and Artists’ roster ran to not much more than the Hawthornden (open to “imaginative literature” by a writer under the age of 41, founded 1919), the James Tait Black (biography, also 1919), the recently founded and little regarded Booker Prize, heavyweight history (the Wolfson) and one or two rather obscure poetry prizes, such as the Prudence Farmer Award, worth a few pounds and given to the best poem printed in the New Statesman in the preceding 12 months.

By the mid-1980s, on the other hand, “prize culture” was carrying all before it, and arts world philanthropists came tripping over themselves in their haste to distribute bounty. Informed judges usually date the onset of this phenomenon to 1980 and press interest in the battle-of-the-titans Booker Prize which pitted William Golding against Anthony Burgess.

There was another media free-for-all the following year, when Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children narrowly saw off D.M Thomas’s The White Hotel, after which the Booker became the UK arts world’s equivalent of the Royal Enclosure at Ascot. To be invited to its ceremonial dinner was to have arrived, while not to receive your square of pasteboard was to be flung into the outer darkness.

Thirty-five years later, the list of British literary prizes trails on like some outsize serpent over dozens of pages. There is the Baillie-Gifford (biography), the Goldsmiths (“experimental” fiction), the five-category Costa, formerly the Whitbread, the Bollinger (humour) and the Republic of Consciousness (small press publications).

Meanwhile, research discloses at least five awards available to first-time novelists, getting on for ten devoted to crime novelists and something over a dozen booked to accommodate various branches of non-fiction — so many, in fact, that not having won one at some point must, to the average writer, be merely a source of shame.

At a basic cultural level this surge is perfectly understandable. Bookworld culture in this country has never been truly homogeneous, but until fairly recently there existed in our print media something that approximated to a mainstream literary taste. No such central stream survives and all we have left is a series of contending tributaries — the readers who like that kind of book and the readers who like that other kind of book, with only occasional constituency-bestriders (Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro) to bring them together. As literary taste grows more diverse, then the prizes on offer to the writers trying to conciliate it will follow suit.

To pile on the number of literary prizes available is merely to devalue the books that win them

On the other hand, there is a suspicion that to pile on the number of literary prizes available to writers is merely to devalue the books that win them and the process that brings (or doesn’t bring) them to public attention. After all, if 30 per cent of the degrees awarded by a specimen Russell Group university are firsts, then what is the point of a first? One might, for example, instance the incremental loss of prestige suffered by the Booker in the past few years. Part of this is down to the catastrophic misjudgement of letting in the Americans, but another part is due to sheer weight of numbers. If half-a-dozen prize administrators are constantly emailing arts editors and BBC Radio Four about their darling schemes, boredom starts to set in.

None of this is to disparage the motives that impel the book world’s hautes fonctionnaires to establish literary awards, for these are entirely benign — aimed at drawing attention to writers, rewarding their efforts and encouraging readers to buy their books. You might think, though, that there are better ways of doing this than to underwrite the Mrs Joyful Prize for a first novel by a woman under the age of 40 living in the London Borough of Croydon.

The Secret Author once judged the Booker, back when the world was young. It was an amusing yet in the end rather depressing experience — all books are ultimately commodities, but you don’t need to be reminded of the fact five times a day. What really struck him was the colossal sums spent on administration. Are you a wealthy arts-world sponsor who wants to help struggling writers? Well, find some and give them money. But whatever you do, don’t found a prize

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