Do we have too many literary prizes?

The Man Booker Prize announced their longlist last week, and responses ranged from completely abivalance to rioting in the streets. The names on the longlist, which are more or less the kind of names that white middle class men have like David or David, are mostly unsurprising and the list as a whole is extremely safe. There are just three women, and only one person of colour. The judges claim that it was the change in rules, allowing US writers to be eligible for the award (although past winners DBC Pierre and Yann Martel are basically American anyway), which lead to a lack of Commonwealth authors being submitted for the prize.

There are loads of literature prizes in the UK alone, ranging from top tier awards such as Man Booker and Costa Book Award which can award prizes of £35,000, through to the lower-end of the scale such as The Guardian’s Not the Booker, where you win a mug. In between there is a huge list composed of Trusts and Foundations, bookstores, genre, first book and many others. In fact, for a great number of things, there are at least two prizes, if not more.

So, it begs the question: Are there too many literary prizes?

Really, there are two different levels of prize in the literary world. There are the universally famous: The Man Booker, The Nobel, Costa and so on. Then there are the smaller scale prizes, the Green Carnation, Not the Booker, The Portico Prize. The latter tend to be more greatly focussed on something specific (LGBT writing, Northern writing etc…). The former tend to look wider at the literary world, although with some larger genre prizes (The Hugo) this is less the case.

But what do prizes achieve? Cathryn Summerhayes, an agent at WME wrote a great article articulating her thoughts about literary prizes. Within that she states, ‘I think any prize which helps bring new writers to a global audience should be supported wholeheartedly by the book trade and literary press.’ She goes on to discuss how prizes also help authors find a place in the market, ‘Books have become luxury items and each publication is a major risk for publishers. Even if the advance paid is small, there are all the costs involved in getting the book to market – and in the case of international publishers, there are the substantial translation costs to factor in as well. What publishers are looking for is some guarantee that a book will sell – and recognition from these prizes and the uplift in sales we see because of them in the UK, is a good indicator that the book will stand a fair chance of success wherever it is published.’

It’s a strong argument, particularly for an author like Eimar McBride, who’s novel A Girl is a Half Formed Thing was rejected numerous times before finding a home with small press Galley Beggar. Its subsequent shortlistings (and some wins) at the Goldsmiths, Folio and Bailey’s prize has rocketed it up in the charts, and for an experimental novel, that is a very impressive feat.

But can all books achieve this with prize recognition? It’s unlikely. Dave Hartley argues that perhaps there are too many, ‘too many top-tier prizes has a devaluing effect and can end up feeling quite elitist.’ In a way, it’s true. It would be impossible for a constant reader to keep up with every book which won every prize, let along try and attempt to get through the shortlists.

Valerie O’Riordan argues in favour of them, ‘I’m well in favour of the big prizes; they’re aspirational at the very least, in an industry that otherwise goes pretty well unrecognised as a real ‘career’! If you slashed the major story/poetry prizes here in the UK you’d be fucking with the only real possibility for the kind of recognition that might precede a book deal or get an author public recognition.

As for the teeny prizes: I’m skeptical of those as nobody really benefits – daft prizes, no publicity, agents won’t give a shit, judged by nobody you’ve heard of, etc, etc. Talking about the big prizes for novels, though, I think that certainly more diversity has got to be an agenda for the folk behind them. Many are already pretty specific – Polari, Encore, Baileys and the Caine Prizes spring to mind, as well as the Goldsmiths which has a more formal (anti-Booker!) bent – but to my mind if any breadth is to be achieved regarding shortlisted/winning titles, you’ve got to think about the judging panel rather than the title, or indeed, the remit of the prizes themselves: old white men are gonna go for old white men.’

I think that’s the most true argument so far. For writers, the bigger prizes can be an aspiration, and having so many of them could make winning one seem achievable. Smaller prizes can sometimes seem perfuncturary and the awards can often go to some truly bizarre books. The US based PRISM award, which is awarded to strong depictions of addiction and mental illness, was one year awarded to a comic book in which the main character beats up a bunch of hobos with a dead cat.

I will never tire of using this image in articles.

I will never tire of using this image in articles.

It’s not exactly an award winning comic, and yet it did win one.

Maybe then it’s that there are two issues at play. The top tier prizes certainly don’t show much diversity by any means, and the lower tier prizes? There’s just too many of them right now and not enough good quality work going to them for them to make their name. Remember the story about Eimar McBride? It works both ways. A small book can be turned into a huge hit with a top tier prize shortlisting, so maybe a big book and turn a small prize big? It’s unlikely, and it’s already happened plenty of places. Suffice to say that some of the smaller prizes, such as the Polari prize, are frequently very exciting, much more so than the bigger ones.

I’ll leave you with a comment from author Nicola Valentine, talking from the side of someone who has been shortlisted for awards, ‘it’s important that there are a good number to give different books that appeal to different tastes a chance. Let’s say there was just the Booker, Costa and Orange prize, as an example. My first novel would have won nothing, not even shortlisted in fact, and perhaps have been considered a failure. Having the Authors’ Club, Betty Trask and various others meant that it had a life outside of these big prizes. In the awards that my book won, it was shortlisted with the many books from the other ‘bigger’ prizes but was chosen above them by those particular judging panels. So the range meant my book was noticed and recognised in a way it might not have been otherwise.’

Do you agree, disagree, let me know in the comments below!

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