Whether it’s the Bad Sex award given to the author of the most cringe-worthy sex scene in literature each year or coveted literary prizes such as the Booker and the Pulitzer, book awards attract a lot of attention. They also attract a considerable amount of debate particularly concerning the worthiness of winners. So do we actually need them and what do they really achieve?
Regular followers of this blog will know that I read quite a lot of books which are nominated for the Booker Prize and other similar literary awards. I don’t read these books purely because they are on the shortlist and I certainly wouldn’t rush out and buy the whole lot straight after the announcement. Like most people, I still choose books almost entirely according to personal recommendations and general browsing rather than the number of prestigious awards they have won. However, I am always intrigued by what it is about them that got them recognised and nominated in the first place so I do try and hunt down the ones I think I might enjoy and have heard generally good things about. Awards help draw attention towards some of the forgotten gems among the dross. This can only be a good thing. Clearly, nominations are very important for little-known authors who will finally get widespread recognition for their work. Of course, at the end of the day, publishers and authors also need to sell their books. Awards are just about the best publicity you can get so the guaranteed sales spike is always going to be welcomed. This list of Booker Prize winners according to actual UK book sales since 1998 is particularly interesting – I wonder how many of those copies of ‘Midnight’s Children’ have actually been read?
Eventual winners can often prove to be a disappointment though, leading many to question the actual value of such prizes. Only the test of time will judge whether or not the novels are truly enduring and achieve genuine popularity. Even then, you still can’t please all the people all the time. There are some Booker Prize winners that I like (The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro ) and some that I didn’t like much at all (The Gathering by Anne Enright and Possession by A.S. Byatt). Even the criteria for awards can sometimes be vague and subjective – what actually is literary fiction? How can you even begin to compare ‘Room‘ by Emma Donoghue against The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson which were both nominated for the Booker in 2010? Does it actually matter who even wins or is it just the nominations that count?
Generally, I don’t think the general principles behind book awards are a total waste of time. Celebrating literary excellence and putting the spotlight on otherwise overlooked authors are essentially good things. But perhaps the blatant pretentiousness that surrounds these events can be an unwelcome distraction.