Friday, December 14, 2007


This from Guardian blogger Nicholas Lezard:

It was with mixed feelings that we learned that Lily Allen, the singer and songwriter, is to be a judge for this year's Orange prize for fiction. On the one hand, we are pleased for her, for she is an intelligent and talented lyricist and musician, one who deserves her fame despite her appalling father; and excitingly young (at 22, the youngest judge ever for the Orange).
On the other hand, we groan. The Orange has always had the whiff of the publicity angle about it (daring the conservative male literary establishment to get upset about a women-only prize); and indeed, in commenting on this latest development we are, regrettably, complicit in their latest stunt.

The prize's co-founder, Kate Mosse, has pre-empted criticism by saying that there is a precedent, in that they have previously enrolled Suzanne Vega as a judge; and that "it is as much about being a great reader and having a variety of occupations and ages represented. We hope that all the judges will bring different constituents of readers with them and spread the word ... "

Well, fair enough. We will let this one pass. But only because Ms Allen has demonstrated that she has a way with words. Leaving that aside, we note that this is part of an inexorable trend: that in order for any literary event to be validated, a celebrity has to be involved. And the further away from the literary world, the better.

The nadir of this trend came with the announcement of the panel for the 2001 Whitbread prize, which included: Matthew Pinsent, the Olympic gold-medalist oarsman; Penny Smith, a breakfast TV presenter; Clare Balding, a former jockey and presenter of the BBC's racing coverage; and Alan Davies, the comedian.

We are now approaching the time when the only people allowed, or paid, to offer any supposedly meaningful aesthetic opinions on anything are those who have achieved fame in some other area. For otherwise how are the common folk to be enticed into the literary world?
It's a shabby game. It's patronising, both to the authors being judged, and to the public, who are seen as not smart enough to be interested in anything unless a famous person is involved. And as for the celebs themselves - they don't come out of it looking too good either: they're saying, in effect: "I have hidden depths! I can read!" Well, bully for them. The best thing you can say about exercises like this is that they expose the whole prize-giving business as the folly it is.
Let us take this to the logical conclusion: we want Jordan and Peter Andre to replace the Nobel committee, now.

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