Tuesday, August 5, 2014

On ‘Lost For Words’ and Taking Aim At Awards

Edward St Aubyn’s ‘Lost For Words’ is a satiric novel about the judging process for the Elysian Prize, a fictitious literature award that is not that dissimilar to the Booker. In it, publishers, authors, and even judges all look to push particular books into consideration for the prize, with their reasons only sometimes having to do with literary merit. One contender is ‘wot u starin at’, an Irvine Welsh-like piece of ‘gritty social realism’. Another is ‘The Palace Cookbook’, a book of recipes that was entered by mistake, and which is seen by some as a new form of postmodern multimedia, and by others as, well … a cookbook. Shifting alliances between the prize’s judges affect the Long List, the Short List, and ultimately the winner, essentially portraying the whole of the literary award process as a bit of a farce. (And yes, the novel has ending up winning an award itself: the Wodehouse prize for comic fiction.)

For the most part I am sympathetic to this message. Arts and entertainment awards often are little more than an excuse for back-slapping, and in some cases they are in large part just a reflection of what has sold well. Prime example: the Grammys, which as the Simpsons told us, is possibly the most irrelevant of them all. For the most part though the Grammys can be written off as relatively ineffectual; this is less true for literary awards, which are very important for getting books on audiences’ radars. Winning a major award can translate into a large boost in sales (even if apparently, as a study shows, it also leads to more negative reviews).

My theory, largely unproven I guess, is that people face greater constrains when choosing books than they do when choosing, say, albums or movies. One can get through plenty of albums or movies in a year and can afford to waste their time on a few duds, whereas they have to be more confident with books that they are choosing something of quality. Plus books are less hyped and advertised, and so the short lists of awards may very well be people’s best source of information on what ‘new and notable’ books have been released that year.

The temptation is to just dismiss the results of awards, and see ‘general judgment’ as being more pure – for example, the Stooges, the Smiths, or the Pixies never had to win awards for their music to be perceived as ‘classic’. But that conclusion may be a little too comfortable; maybe –  and maybe this could in part be the message of St Aubyn’s book – even ‘general judgment’ involves some type of politicking. Regardless of whether there are black ties and a big, shiny pyramid on offer at the end, careers can have their ebbs and flows depending on the tedious office politics of the time, without the person really doing anything different. Ultimately, we are all pushing our preferences, whether it is through our book recommendations, our conversations about movies, or our Wooden Finger Fives. Which does not mean that those stupid, back-slapping awards do not deserve a good bullocking now and then …

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