Monday, 3 February 2014
On the one hand, the four lit prizes that CBe books have won (plus watch this space), and the several shortlistings, and without the little flurries of publicity (plus a few sales) attached it would have been harder to keep CBe going.
Prizes – and the news stories they generate – help keep the show on the road. They’re ubiquitous: from the big ones that keep the riffraff out (the Booker, the Costa and the Dylan Thomas all require the submitting publisher to contribute a large sum of money towards publicity for books that reach the shortlist stage; the Guardian First Book award requires £180 just to enter) to the ones that welcome all (13,000 entries to the National Poetry Competition last year). Where there is a perception that the existing prizes reward only a certain kind of book, another one is set up (the Goldsmiths). For small presses, prizes are a traditional way of creating income: get a writer with a known name to judge, offer publication (book/pamphlet/anthology) as prize, charge a few quid entry fee, and it’s hard, I think, given the number of writers longing for publication, not to turn a profit. (The simple reason why CBe has not tried this is that I dread having to publish work that I myself don’t like.)
On the other hand … Though I read on average more than a book a week, and more fiction than poetry, I haven’t read a Booker Prize winner since 2001, and of the 65 titles on the shortlists since that year I’ve read just seven.
Prizes ritualise the element of competition that is there from the start – from the day you send off a poem or story to a magazine, and thereby compete with others for the available space; through the struggles to convince an agent or publisher that your work is more worth their attention than the other submissions; and on, after publication, to the shouting of your wares in the marketplace. But rituals, rites, ceremonies, are constructs, not real life; nor are prizes literature, though they are not unrelated.
Prizes are generally conservative: they tend to reward fine examples of forms of writing that are familiar. With any more than two judges, they are being judged by committees, which themselves tend to deliver conservative judgements. Prizes influence what is sold and read. Do they influence what is written? Indirectly, maybe. Agents and mainstream publishers follow the money; if you’re writing ‘literary fiction’, or even poetry, you may well have more luck with them if your work accords with the type of writing that wins – or is expected to win – major prizes, with attendant publicity and sales. And if that is so, then the range of writing being published mainstream is narrowed. (Just as, in schools, the measurement of success by grades narrows the focus of teaching towards the criteria by which grades are assessed, and narrows the syllabus too.)
On the third hand, I doubt that any serious writer actually sets out to write a prize-winning book. Nor do publishers at the CBe end of the scale take on books on the basis of whether or not they are potential prize material. I can celebrate prize-winners but I don’t have to take prizes literally (‘best’ book?), and I can make my own choices about what to read.
(The above picture shows, I think, a satyr play at the 5th-century-BC City Dionysia, at which prizes were awarded for tragedies. Forward Foundation: can we too please have a satyr play? Imagine entering your play and building up your hopes only to find that Aeschylus has won again.)