The art of prize-fighting

An essay on the culture of literary prizes, first published in Prospect Magazine, January 2009

It is a central paradox of writing that true greatness only becomes apparent over time, and yet that the judgements of the future are substantially dependent on what the present chooses to publish, publicise and preserve. Viewed from the pinnacles of hindsight, literary history looks like a stately procession of great texts. A snapshot taken at any particular moment, however, reveals a far messier business; one clogged with readers, writers, commercial obligations, prejudices and misconceptions. Everything we might call the canon of literature—those enduring works that collectively form a standard we judge others by—is busily being forged or maintained within that snapshot. And somewhere close to the heart of this business lies one of the most ancient and contentious of all artistic institutions: the literary prize. Prizes are an attempt to mould, and to pre-empt, posterity. Their answers rarely satisfy; they seem, sometimes, to possess an astonishing capacity for ignoring talent. Yet they occupy an increasingly crucial, and volatile, position amid those imperfect processes by which writing is turned into literature.

The ancient Greeks founded the idea of the literary prize. In fact, the Greek calendar was stuffed full of formal contests, most of which were either poetical, athletic or some combination of the two; the competitive singing of dithyrambs—choruses of praise to Dionysus—was a kind of literary team sport, with groups of up to 50 men or boys dancing in circles and declaiming verse. It may have looked like an out-take from Monty Python, but this was art of the most serious kind: a vital component of honouring the gods, and an equally vital focus for national pride. Rivalry was intense and winners’ prestige was huge. Just as sporting spectacles offered citizens the vicarious thrill of watching the human body pushed toward its limits, so the quest for supremacy in words turned the deepest concerns of the mind—birth, death, politics, love, inheritance, loss—into a transcendent game.

After the classical era, prizes continued to be contested in various forms in all the arts, but their wider importance diminished. Patrons, guilds and learned societies singled out the most talented and commissioned and rewarded them; although writing, guarded by the priesthood, flowed down narrow channels. Even the convulsions of the Renaissance did not herald a return to Greek levels of passion for public contest. Instead, the birth of increasingly individual artistic forms—the new, secular drama and, later, the novel—went hand-in-hand with the prospect of artists selling their work directly to a paying public. Here was a quite different route to those most tangible measures of acclaim—wealth and renown—than commissions or awards. By the 19th century, publishers of books, pamphlets and papers had access to a swelling reading public whose heterogeneous tastes outweighed even the most august academies.

It was only at the start of the 20th century that the first truly modern literary prize arrived. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, died in 1896. He bequeathed in his will an immense sum, equivalent to $186m today, to fund five international prizes in the fields of literature, chemistry, physics, medicine and peace (prompted, it’s said, by the guilt he felt when his obituary was prematurely published in a French newspaper and described him as a “merchant of death”). In 1901, the first five Nobel prize were announced. Crucially, they were awarded not by patrons or clubs, but by impartial and authoritative committees—something as close to an absolute and enduring standard as the modern world could find. Their impact was instant, and enormous. The result of the Nobel prize for literature (awarded to the French poet René Prudhomme) was reported in over 100 newspapers. Like the newly reborn Olympic movement (founded in 1896) and the young world of football tournaments (the FA cup was first contested in 1871-2), here was an annual competition that would deliver a stream of victory headlines into the hands of the media and its audience. The Greek cult of artistic and athletic competition had been reborn.


Nobel imitators soon came thick and fast: in 1903 and 1905, the Goncourt and Femina prizes in France; in 1917, the Pulitzer in America; in 1919, Britain’s first, the James Tait Black Memorial prize; and many more. If the previous century had been the era of mass admission into written culture, might this one see a mass admission into high literary culture?

It didn’t exactly work out like that. As the years went by, prizes continued to spring up. Yet neither the gradual expansion of the universities nor the increasing number of awards seemed to be infusing the general reader with an overwhelming regard for works of the transcendent type. “Low” literature, too, was getting in on the act: in 1955 the recently formed British Crime Writers’ Association started awarding an annual prize for the best crime novel of the year; in the same year, the American science fiction magazine Amazing Stories began giving out an annual award, followed a decade later by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. What was emerging was more organic than hierarchical: a densely-woven ecosystem of patronage whose health was open to (frequent) dispute.

This was, potentially, a good thing for writers of all types. Yet it was also fundamentally unstable—and it was only a matter of time before the forces of escalation began to kick in. Perhaps the most familiar example of this is Britain’s Booker prize. Its beginnings were modest, if canny enough. In 1968, a young editor at Jonathan Cape, Tom Maschler, successfully approached the agricultural and food company Booker Brothers for sponsorship of an annual award intended to stimulate interest “in serious British fiction as whole.” Where the Nobel had aimed at rewarding “an ideal direction” in literature, this was an award that had learned something from the bestsellers. The Booker would aim at catching “the imagination of the press” by establishing an explicitly sporting-style atmosphere: a shortlist of authors, a high-profile panel of judges, an exciting victor.

The prize got off to a poor start—it picked a forgettable first winner, PH Newby’s Something to Answer For, and there was talk of cancelling it altogether during its first few years. From 1972, however, under the administration of Martyn Goff, it began to win incrementally more attention and admiration. The watershed was 1981: the first year the prize had live coverage on television and the first time that a truly controversial winner emerged, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. A cultural juggernaut had begun rolling. In 1984, 1989 and 2002 the prize-money was increased—it currently sits at £50,000—maintaining its status as one of the country’s richest book awards. From the early 1980s, the time between the shortlist announcement and the final decision was increased, stoking up tension and speculation. And the trickle of controversies and pseudo-controversies continued—this year, it was the inclusion of a thriller, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44, on the longlist for the first time. Above all, though, what came to impress was sales. By the 1990s, winners could regularly expect to shift over 500,000 copies. Within hours, this year’s victor, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, was topping online British fiction charts. Before being shortlisted, it had sold fewer than 1,000 copies. During its time on the shortlist, it sold around 2,600. Now, post-victory, there are predictions of global sales of over a million.

The Booker is widely criticised, and just as widely praised. The point, though, is that it’s talked about—and that, as even its harshest critics would concede, has helped to sell an awful lot of good books. But it has also blazed the way for a plethora of other literary prizes. The Costa Book Awards (founded as the Whitbread in 1971). The Orange prize (1996). The Samuel Johnson prize (1999). The Wales Book of the Year (1992). The Waverton Good Read Award (2003). And plenty more—a quantity that suggests the central problem of contemporary prize-culture. However prestigious each award may be individually, together they make a deadening, bewildering list. In what sense can there be five, ten or twenty best books of the year? Prizes are aimed at different fields, of course. Yet there’s both significant overlap and large uncertainty about the boundaries of each. Take the Booker’s inclusion of Child 44. In theory, treating genre literature seriously is a good thing: an assertion of excellent writing’s universal qualities. In the current climate, though, it’s more likely to look like a loss of nerve: an admission that no one is sure what a “Booker book” looks like any more.

While big-selling popular fiction can afford to take its awards with a pinch of salt, prizes such as the Booker are increasingly vital to the field that likes to think of itself as quality literature. Along with the book clubs—among which Richard and Judy are in Britain what Oprah is to America—their influence on booksellers can determine entire publishing house budgets. Which leads to a question that’s weighing increasingly heavily on the shoulders of critics and prize-judges alike: in an overcrowded field, over-reliant on its relatively few hits and sporadic PR injections, might ambitious literature lose the big audience, as poetry and classical music have done?

In practice, what all this means is intense competition between the competitions. It’s increasingly vital, for instance, for the judges as well as the judged to grab headlines. This year’s Booker jury was typical: chaired by an ex-cabinet minister turned broadcaster, it featured a literary journalist, a novelist, the founder of Ottakar’s bookshops and a television and radio broadcaster. The Orange went one better, inviting pop singer Lily Allen (complete with predictable controversy) into its jury. She eventually dropped out, but the point was made. These are the people’s prizes, not the province of some snobby elite. These are popular public figures of good taste, and you’re going to enjoy reading what they enjoy reading.

The problem is not that having Lily Allen judging a literary prize is a bad thing as such. It’s that the attention such manoeuvres command is ultimately exhausting, and speaks of exhaustion. Something can only be interesting, or shocking, a certain number of times before it gets old. And if a panel is too exquisitely tailored to match media and public expectations, the context of lasting literary value begins to look rather distant. At what point does a jury become a focus-group, or jury selection begin to look like a popularity contest? And just how significant is any award when there are so many of them that most literary CVs boast at least one gong? It’s an unwritten part of the contemporary media deal that, in exchange for PR and banter and sales, everyone is expected to be either a good sport or a calculated curmudgeon. But they cannot opt out of the game—and it’s a game in which even the joke awards now seem to have as much status as the real ones. Rachel Johnson characterised her winning of this year’s Bad Sex in Literature award (established 1993) as an “absolute honour,” and she wasn’t entirely joking. At least, she knew that she had no choice but to play along.


Simply decrying the populism and commercialism of modern times, however, won’t make these problems go away. And it’s also to miss perhaps the most important point of all: that literature is, among other things, a confidence game; and its health depends a lot on what one is and isn’t able to say and do in its service. Unlike a sporting contest, the notion of a literary winner is itself a kind of fiction: an act of propaganda and persuasion. If the current landscape of literary prizes is approaching deadlock, then, its problem is not so much over-extension as the sheer narrowness of the ground that’s being battled over—ground where the delicate balance between populism and underlying standards is increasingly warped by the need for easy headlines and safe sales. Even before it arrives, every controversy has a hollow ring to it. The sniping, the joke awards, the populist panels: these aren’t half as amusing or interesting as the media pretend. At a lean time for everyone in the print industry, it doesn’t do to bite one of the few hands that’s left feeding you. But the increasingly interchangeable (and arbitrary) feel of each literary event in the calendar cannot serve the long-term interests of a trade that ultimately relies on fresh talent, readers and ideas for its survival.

It’s a troubling, self-destructive trend—and one that may yet see shopping for serious literature driven entirely online. Yet there is, too, a pale glow of illusion surrounding the wilder claims made for prize sales figures. Winners can and do sell big, but no victory guarantees vast sales, and the tail-enders of shortlists often fare poorly. Most importantly—and despite the wishful claims of some publishers—there is still no substitute for word of mouth. In 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid lost out to Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in the Booker, but considerably outsold it, becoming one of the best-performing literary novels of the year (it was also, in my opinion, a far more ambitious and exciting book). Prizes grant opportunities, but their pronouncements remain at the mercy of the reading public. And the bottom line is that this public are ill-served by much of the current marketplace of overlapping awards and those “prize-winning” books manufactured to claim them—sensitive, trendy tracts of needlessly effortful prose whose elegant openings so impress some juries.

It’s a particular irony, then, that the paralysis among big publishers—who are turning out less new literary fiction than ever and are increasingly concerned with trying to fit books into boxes to suit particular awards—comes at a time when more readers than ever are involved in writing and literature at the creative end. And here we find quite another layer to the contemporary phenomenon of literary prizes. Far away from the radars of all but the most specialist media, there are the amateurs: the would-be and the nascent writers, the part-timers, the students, the enthusiasts. This is a segment of the literary industry that is, in its way, more maligned than its commercial end. Courses and minor awards (especially those for poetry) are regularly hauled over the coals—they are, we’re told, run by a cosily self-perpetuating coterie parasitic upon unrealistic optimism; they are silly, soft-headed and a waste of time. All of which has some truth in it. Yet—every author was at some stage unpublished. And how, and whether, those authors yet to be published begin their journey towards an audience is a key question for any age that values its literature.


I still remember my first few “publications” as the most satisfying of my life. These came within magazines and pamphlets of near-infinitesimally small circulations as the result of a few poetry and short story competitions I entered as a schoolboy. They could scarcely have come any other way: I had no knowledge of, no contacts within, and no clue about, the book market. I was simply in the habit of sending off things I wrote to the kind of competitions that teachers advertised on notice boards. Such things were, I gradually realised, almost invisible to the world of published books and admired writers, and divided from it by a seemingly immense canyon of ability, insider knowledge and experience. Yet there was also a remarkable continuum between them: one based on judgments about texts and the universality of the desire to write and to be understood. Once words written on a page by one person were being read by another, the playing field was—briefly—level. This was about writing words down, sending them out into the world, and finding that they had meant something to someone else. And, knowing this, wanting to do it again, and better.

It’s something expressed by WH Auden in a delicate, strange essay entitled “Writing” that he wrote in 1932. “Since the underlying reason for writing,” it argues, “is to bridge the gulf between one person and another, as the sense of loneliness increases, more and more books are written by more and more people, most of them with little or no talent. Forests are cut down, rivers of ink absorbed, but the lust to write is still unsatisfied…” Auden’s is a bleak vision, yet it also suggests a powerful way of recasting our hope for writing in the world—for acclaim, for audience—into more human terms: as reflections of the universal need to feel understood, and to feel that we are not alone. Competition, in this sense, is not so much a matter of beating others as of becoming better at something very particular: at participating in the shared, flawed, ongoing human project of literature.

All of which might sound magnificently abstracted. Yet, in a relativist age chronically insecure in its literary judgments, it is vital that we find ways of keeping as many paths open as we can from the roots of reading and writing to the public, published world of literature. The only thing, after all, that can justify the grand balancing act of any major literary prize is the quality of its winners. Without these, and without a public’s faith in these, it descends into a mere opinion poll; and we already have plenty of those.

If, however, we are willing to have a little more faith in the hunger that’s still out there among readers for fresh, awakening words, there remain causes for hope. Rather than retreat into misanthropy, literature should take a step towards this audience—should wind down some of the media circus, shed its timid obsession with narrow categories, and learn a little more from the worlds both of genre fiction (where much that is most exciting in contemporary writing is taking place) and grassroots prizes. Although the Booker is bloated, it still does a lot of things right. But we should thin out the other awards, and spend some money instead on competitions that will get first books into print. We should restore proper expertise to juries, and then—and only then—thoroughly expand the longlists into science fiction, crime, thrillers, horror and everything else that’s out there racking up sales.

The money is not “ours,” of course: it belongs to sponsors who must be brought on board. But the underlying principle is something that patrons of all kinds should grasp. At their best, prizes foster innovation and form a bridge between the more brutal facts of a literary market and the radical possibilities at its edges—the revolutions, innovations and talents yet to come. Serious, ambitious literature need not become incompatible with mass audiences. But it is more likely to do so if the public notion of a great book is allowed to wither into tautology: one that wins prizes and should be bought, but doesn’t need to be read.