Burning questions on literary prizes [INTERVIEW]


Do we need so many literary prizes? And how do they work? Well, on Wednesday 14th March we’re talking all things literary prizes with The TLS. You can book a ticket here. To whet your whistle ahead of the event, the brilliant Michael Caines from The TLS has answered some burning questions on the literary prize subject.

1) Every year there seems to be more literary prizes appearing: why do you think this is? Do we need so many?

People have been saying we have too many literary prizes for decades, but it doesn’t stop new prizes mushrooming all over the place. I suspect they do that partly because it seems like a good marketing wheeze – eg, if it works for the French (with their Prix Goncourt), then it can work for the British (with their Goncourt-inspired Booker). And it helps that prizes inevitably have boundaries or unintended tendencies that mean somebody somewhere understandably feels excluded and senses the opportunity to set up a prize of their own.

2) What’s it like to be a judge?

I’ve never judged a major competition myself, and hope never to be put in that position. But I’ve interviewed several judges for – blatant self-promotion alert – a short book about literary prizes I’m writing at the moment; quite a few of them said they’d calmly got on with it, agreed with their fellow judges, and enjoyed the process. They also showed me how diligent they’d been with doing the reading, making notes and so on. The media love the spats, but I wonder if, for the most part, it’s actually a ridiculous amount of critical work that intelligent readers recklessly undertake. Personally, I’d rather have their individual recommendations than the sometimes extremely dull, safe, pointless overall choices of winners the system (usually) compels them to make.

3) How much emphasis do you think the publishing industry puts on prizes? Do you think it’s the right amount?

I fear it’s too much, but, as a mid-list novelist said to me recently: what else is there? And a publisher likewise challenged me to come up with a comparable alternative. The prize industry is now securely welded onto the publishing industry, and it will perhaps take some great climacteric shift to shake it off. I’m in two minds about the whole business. It’s rather wonderful that a well-placed prize can make a bestseller out of an Ali Smith or an Alan Hollinghurst – yet I cannot shake off the fear that the whole thing is a scam and a corruption of the critical impulse.

4) Which prizes have you seen emerging recently that you think will have a bigger prominence in the literary publishing scene in the future?

I’m rubbish at the prophesying game. My wish-list, though, if we have to prizes is: that the Republic of Consciousness Prize should endure, and continue to draw attention to small presses and their authors; that the relatively young Goldsmiths Prize should live up to its mission statement to reward “creative daring”; and that the judges of the major poetry prizes should always reward talent rather than one another, each in their turn, from year to year. Again, though, I’d imagine that it’ll take some drastic shift in the “economics of prestige”, as Professor James English called his study of the prize phenomenon, to shake things up. So you should probably take my pretentious and naïve wish-list and chuck it bin-wards. The current crop of big prizes seems likely to remain on top, as long as they bring to market either widely acceptable (or gruesomely controversial) choices.

5) As someone who has been a judge, what advice would you give to anyone submitting a book to a prestigious award? Any faux-pas we should know about?

Perfect the knack of indifference. If you find yourself on a shortlist, congratulate and celebrate with your fellow shortlisted authors. Also: a novelist was once talking down to a young photographer who’d been sent to take his picture. Then he realized she was the girlfriend of the judge of a major literary prize. His behaviour altered somewhat. So don’t be that man.

Join Michael and his colleagues, along with BookMachine, on Wednesday 16th March. Tickets here.

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