Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Why books need literary prizes

The Costa and Booker prizes may be a literary lottery but awards have more influence now than reviews

Tuesday 29 January 2013 
Trophy club ... awards pack more punch than reviews when it comes to a book's fortune. Photograph: Image Source/Alamy

Tomorrow sees the annual Costa book award: a notoriously hard competition to get a handle on, not least because, now the individual categories (fiction, poetry, biography etc) have been adjudicated, the celebrity jury has the unenviable task of comparing Hilary Mantel's Man Booker-winning novel Bring Up the Bodies with a graphic biography, Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, and three other category winners, including Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon, a book for children. It's a bad case of apples and oranges, and the outcome rarely satisfies. Still, whatever its deficiencies, I agree with those who say that, in general, these trophies are A Good Thing. Yes, it's a lottery, but it's a lottery that attracts the reading public to new books, and sometimes promotes unknowns. What's not to like?

Far more than book reviews, it's literary prizes that shape the afterlives of new titles. Even in the recession-hit UK, these prizes show no sign of losing popular appeal. Far from it. As well as Costa, the Booker will soon be facing competition from the avowedly highbrow Literature prize, set up in protest at the perceived dumbing-down of the Booker. Elsewhere there are South Asian, Russian and African prizes. A hundred years ago, there were virtually no prizes, but there's no question that the phenomenon is here to stay, reflecting (I think) the important role of the marketplace in the contemporary book world. We are all Thatcherites now.

In other parts of the literary landscape, however, it's a case of plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose. On a whim, I've been re-reading Somerset Maugham's acerbic little novel of literary life, Cakes and Ale. Just like George Gissing's New Grub Street, much of it could have been written yesterday. Maugham's satire on Edward Driffield, a famous and greatly revered writer bearing a more-than-passing resemblance to Thomas Hardy, and his portrait of Alroy Kear, a similarly biting evisceration of popular 30s bestseller Hugh Walpole, reveals a young novelist taking well-timed shots at his seniors. That's a story as old as the hills, and eventually Maugham himself would fall from favour, too (although unlike Walpole, whom I dare say nobody reads any more, the author of The Razor's Edge and Of Human Bondage continues to sell and sell).

An introductory note to the paperback edition of Cakes and Ale contains Maugham's whiskery complaints against the perils and burdens of professional authorship. In particular, he deplores the publicity circuit in language that certainly dates him. If there is "one form of advertisement" that he loathes, it is, he says, "the cocktail party that is given to launch a book. This ignoble practice is not rendered less objectionable when it is presumed to be given at the expense of the publisher …"
Actually, these days, the recession has dramatically cut publishers' launch parties, dinners etc. Prizes such as Costa and Booker, on the other hand, are floated on a sea of sponsored alcohol. God knows what Maugham would say about that.

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