J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for the best first poetry book of 2009. I’m enormously pleased for J.O. (and prouder than if I’d written the book myself), but about the next stage – the announcement of the winner in October – I’m uneasy.
These little lists . . . If these and the prizes bring some wider recognition for good books, and give a writer confidence and a sense of achievement, those are good things, but it’s an odd ritual everyone goes through to get there: a ritual that presumes there is such a thing as a ‘best book’; that involves the judges saying how difficult it has been to select a winner this year (every year)*; and that has all but one of the shortlistees turning up to the awards do only to become, at the opening of an envelope, also-rans (a nasty experience; large amounts of alcohol are often needed to recover from it). Prizes with shortlists are a form of blood sport played for the entertainment of literary hacks, and it would be good if these things could be managed in a less newspapery, more writerly/readerly way.
Shortlisted for the Forward best book category – for the oldies, as opposed to the new kids on the block – is Christopher Reid’s A Scattering, published under the imprint of the magazine Areté. Christopher’s second book of this year, The Song of Lunch, was published by CBe in May. Despite the small rant above, we sincerely hope that both Morgan and Reid become considerably richer in October.
*Because, obviously, there is (except very rarely) no 'best book'. It's like being asked a nonsense question: which is better, a kangaroo or a fishing rod?