Francesca Zunino Harper is a linguist, translator, and publishing professional. She worked in the British and international academia researching on comparative literatures, translation, and women’s and environmental humanities for several years. She now works in the Humanities and Social Sciences area of publishing. You can follow her @ZuninoFrancesca.
Opening the new year’s Bookmachine event series in collaboration with the TLS, last Thursday 14th March
were journalist and book prize judge Alex Clarke, TLS Fiction and Politics Editor Toby Lichtig and TLS journalist and author Michael Caines. Together with the extremely engaged audience they were instigated to create a rich, witty, and profoundly honest conversation on the value of literary prizes.
Perched on high stools with long stand microphones as if about to perform an intimate acoustic session in the Library club in Covent Garden, our three speakers went straight to the point: are there too many prizes?
As judges, is it worth reading hundreds of books? As authors, what are prizes doing for literature, and as publishers, for sales? All in all, are book prizes still exciting?
The answer is yes, there is indeed an increasingly outstanding number of literary prizes. And yes, book prizes are nevertheless still exciting. For judges, as it is nice to be able to sometimes also read books that are outside their specialized areas and habitual genres. For writers, as winning generally does help to raise their profiles. Prizes can still be a career boost, also in monetary terms, whether for a debut or for an already established career. On the other hand, for publishers winning a prize does not automatically guarantee a sales boost, but it does help establish their brand and importance. And for readers, prizes can sometimes be irrelevant if the book scene has already got a vibrant, huge number of reading aficionados anyway – as it’s happening with the crime fiction community, where awards exist to reward writers much more than to make or break an author’s career.
So as both readers and publishing professionals, are we being overprized? The increasing number of prizes and spin-offs – from the Booker, to the Women’s, to the Goldmsiths – seems to indicate that prize-giving and competing are a stable part of contemporary British publishing culture, intrinsic to its bloodstream. Being at the same time readers, judges, and fiction editors, the panel highlighted the need for a filtering process among all the existing prizes to avoid them becoming just white noise. Conversely, a great number of prizes can be a good thing: having as many as possible helps dilute the hegemony of the Booker Prize and encourages the press to see this. An example is the TLS-supported Republic of Consciousness Prize
favouring small presses, for which a few thousand pounds can be a fortune. Also, as it’s often the big publishers winning 80-90% of prizes, a beneficial idea if you are a very distinguished publisher may be to call yourself out for a year leaving space to others.
Straightforwardly, the panel also pointed out how much prizes are dominating everything else in the media’s discourse on publishing and how this has become an issue, with endless debates on the diversity of gender, race and class shown in the longlists, shortlists and winners. It is often overlooked that a lack of diversity can also be down to a lack of submissions. Which in turn can be down to a lack of the necessary resources for small presses to market their books and access the prizes.
Reading to judge a book is of course a very different process from reading to review it. Being a jury member gives you a peculiar relationship and responsibility with literature: you want to be able to completely recommend a book to everyone. You have to read hundreds of books, and whilst you enjoy the gems and the good ones will almost immediately stand out, it is pleasant to usually get along and agree on a winner. Unless scandals and dramas like the ones surrounding recent Booker Prizes make the prize feel divorced from the reality of reading and writing. Or it’s the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, more and more literarily pointless and unsustainable in these post-Weinstein times. But literary gossip benefits marketing and visibility. Unless it’s the Nobel Prize – a peculiar one, usually not interrogated, surrounded by a total, haloed reverence (but what about Bob Dylan?).
Snowballing numbers of prizes and the related criticism of their quantity, judges, books, winners, diversity – have these issues become intrinsic to today’s literary prizes environment? After all, as Oscar Wilde reminds us, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”