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Lost recap: Made you look! But really: So many prizes, so little time

May 21, 2010

Madeleine Bunting, up for something called the Ondaatje prize.

Okay, I’ll concede it’s a bit of a strain to keep the “lost” theme going all the way to Friday, although this week’s clamor over the “Lost Booker Prize” has got me to thinking about prize proliferation and the inflation of literary awards. So many prizes — if you haven’t won one yet, then you must not be much of a writer.

At least that’s the feeling I get, sitting here in my silk pajamas and slippers each morning, sipping Earl Grey and surfing the webbernet for some booky item to bring to your attention. Hardly a day falls dead without word of some prize. Yesterday brought two: The London Independent has a story on the Desmond Elliott Prize, while the Guardian alerts us to the Ondaatje.

The Eliott, as it transpires, attempts to identify the best “first novel published in the United Kingdom,” and has a short list of just three titles: Before the Earthquake, by Maria Allen; The Girl with Glass Feet, by Ali Shaw; and Talk of the Town, by Jacob Polley.

I’ve never heard of any of them — have you? — but I do like The Girl with Glass Feet as a title. The winner, to be announced June 23, will take home £10,000  (about $14,000).

By contrast, the Ondaatje goes each year to “a book ‘of the highest literary merit’ that best evokes the spirit of place,” intones the Guardian. Could we be vaguer? This year’s lot is “eclectic” and “diverse” — as always, we are informed. The Guardian seems most pleased that one of its columnists, Madeleine Bunting, is short listed for her book The Plot, a “biography of an acre.”

The Ondaatje, which also carries a £10,000 award, will be announced May 24. Let’s all root for Madeleine, whose book produces “a more general portrait of England and its land from her very specific example.” I mean, who knows, it probably does, so why not? Go Madeleine.

As you can see by this one day’s random sample, the British seem avid for the giving of literary prizes. Time was, we here in the States heard about the Man Booker (the U.K.’s top literary prize)  and maybe the slightly less stringent Whitbread (now rechristened the Costa).

Nowadays, though, the British hand out book awards willy-nilly: Wikipedia lists 87 Brit-lit prize pages, and I’m not sure that counts them all. Among them: the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; The Commonwealth Writers Prize; the T.S. Elliott Prize (not to be confused with the Desmond Elliott); the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize; the Somerset Maughum Awards; the Orange Prize (don’t you wish it was the “Orange-Is-Not-the-Only-Fruit Prize?!); the Gold Dagger (for crime fiction); the British Fantasy Award; the Arthur C. Clarke Award; the Orwell Prize; and dozens and dozens more.

As one website has it, “the British have a prize-giving culture” –but Americans have grown just as generous with the award-giving: In addition the the Big Three — the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle — U.S. lit awards include: the Bancroft Prize; the Edgar Alan Poe Award; the Golden Spur; the O. Henry Award; the Heartland Prize; the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry (too bad it’s not for editing); the Ridenhour Prize; the Shamus Award; the Lambda Literary Award; the Hugo Award; the Locus Award; the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction; and on and on and on.

I’m sure most if not all these prizes and awards are bestowed in all seriousness, but their cumulative effect is akin to a t-ball tournament, where no player goes home without a trophy. Is this a ridiculous state of affairs?  Does it cheapen each and every prize, except perhaps for the top two or three? You tell me.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    May 21, 2010 2:06 pm

    I used to rassle with this every year before the Grammys, which has so many award categories for music that many if not most become marginal. But I think publishing has a better arrangement: lots of smaller awards instead of one dominant dispenser of prizes trying to cover the landscape.

    Granted, that’s going to make a reviewer bleary-eyed, and there surely are some book awards that could be weeded out to make the whole prize-giving ecosystem more credible. But I like the idea of books passing through a gauntlet of awards panels (after they’ve already been through the gauntlet of gimlet-eyed critics) and seeing which ones consistently get raves from multiple organizations. It’s also a way of sustaining the public’s attention to new books, as the slate of candidates moves in the course of an awards season from one contest to the next and the next. The thing is to make sure there aren’t too many “nexts.” That’s when you wind up with the Grammy problem.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 21, 2010 3:23 pm

      Really, in case I didn’t make it plain in my post, I ABHOR book prizes, and, indeed, arts awards of all kinds, up to and including the freakin’ Oscars. It’s ridiculous to think that, say, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which won the 2009 Man Booker, can be judged accurately against A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, or Simon Mawr’s The Glass Room, and a reliable determination made regarding which is the “best” novel. George C. Scott got it about right when he refused the 1971 Oscar for his portrayal of the title character in Patton, saying the politics surrounding awards is “demeaning” and calling the whole thing a “goddam meat parade.”

      Consider the record of that most noble of literary awards, the Nobel. It’s gone to such mediocrities as Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, yet passed up consensus giants Tolstoy, Conrad, Emil Zola, Mark Twain, and many others.

      But I do my best not to beat this dead horse too often, lest the stench annoy regular readers. I will say that one function prizes perform reasonably well, and the only thing I find tolerable about them, is the publicity that they bring to books and reading and writers, in general and in particular.

      To put not too fine a point on it: Pitting artists one against the other in a beauty or popularity contest is…how shall I say?…obscene.

  2. rachel permalink
    May 21, 2010 2:42 pm

    I don’t know the a title like “The Plot,” and a tagline of a “biography of an acre.” I kind of want her to lose, lose, lose.

    But maybe if she wins she can buy a new haircut or some hair smoother or something.

    I think that it is overwhelming for critics and the general public to really think that all these awards mean anything. But even the big ones, like the Booker, don’t guarentee that whats between the covers is any good. I’m with Sean on this one, as far as books go maybe a bunch of smaller prizes is better. In any case they give money to more people who need it to carve out the time they need to write.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 21, 2010 3:28 pm

    My, aren’t you mean today? And funny? As somebody witty, Dorothy Parker or Mary Astor or somebody once said, “If you can’t say something nice, come sit by me.” I find the “biography of an acre” pretty odious, too, but it may be the product of a publisher’s marketing expert, and not (let’s hope) the author herself. As for the hair style, such a thing is not relevant to whether the book is any good or not, but let me add that I have noted, in my untold decades of arts journalism, that many artsy people labor under the misapprehension that a disheveled head is a sure sign of talent, sensitivity, intellectual sophistication and creativity.

  4. May 22, 2010 8:02 pm

    Very clever that whole lost made you look thing. I think I am going to have to steal that line about if you can’t say something nice come sit by me. I doubt most people will even know I’m stealing.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      May 22, 2010 10:15 pm

      Only those who read my blog. Or a few other things that might have mentioned it here and there.

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