literary prizes

literary prizes
   Although relatively small-scale awards such as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Hawthornden Prize have existed since the end of the First World War, it is only in the 1980s and 1990s that literary prizes have become a significant part of British cultural life. This is partly because they are increasingly lucrative: there are now several prizes for which British authors are eligible with prize money in excess of £10,000. However, this money (usually provided by corporate sponsors) is still relatively small compared to international prizes like the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the real importance of the prizes lies in their potential for generating further promotion and book sales. Publishers are becoming increasingly astute at generating press coverage and bookshop displays for shortlisted and winning authors.
   The most important of these accolades is the Booker Prize, established in 1968, which is open to full-length novels from Britain, the Commonwealth, Ireland, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and which carries an award of £20,000. Its predominance has increased in recent years as the prize ceremony has been televised annually, with a discussion of the shortlisted novels preceding the announcement of the winner. The Whitbread Book of the Year, originating in 1971 as the Whitbread Literary Awards and boasting a total prize of £21,000, is second to the Booker in influence. Although there are a number of other up and coming prizes open to British authors—such as the Guardian Prize for Fiction, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the David Cohen British Literature Prize—at the moment only the Booker and the Whitbread can seriously affect sales. The 1993 Booker winner, Roddy Doyle, had achieved total sales of £6m for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by the end of the following year. The Booker can even make the reputations of relatively unknown authors, as happened with Salman Rushdie, who won for Midnight’s Children in 1981, and A.S.Byatt, who won for Possession in 1990. However, the major literary prizes are certainly not essential to critical and commercial success, as the careers of authors like Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Angela Carter testify. In turn, the experiences of Keri Hulme in 1985 and James Kelman in 1994 show that Booker wins cannot necessarily guarantee bigger sales or wider exposure. In some cases, as with Amis, authors can even achieve a certain notoriety for continually being omitted from shortlists. (The plot of Amis’s novel The Information turns on the attempts of the central character, an unsuccessful author, to scupper the chances of a rival winning a lucrative international literary prize by accusing him of plagiarism).
   Critics of the prizes maintain that they give the promotional hype of publishers and booksellers a veneer of cultural authority. Since most of the prizes are for ‘literary’ fiction—although some, like the Sunday Express Award and the W.H.Smith Literary Prize, make a point of being less ‘elitist’, and the Betty Trask awards explicitly exclude works of an ‘experimental’ nature—it can be argued that the prizes help to create a kind of major league of bankable literary names, contributing to a process of what Richard Todd calls ‘contemporary literary canonformation’ (Todd 1996:9). The prizes are therefore frequently accused of marginalizing particular writing and reading constituencies. The new £30,000 Orange Prize, which is only open to women authors, and the Saga Prize, for black authors born in Britain, for example, are both partly a response to the under-representation of these groups on other shortlists. The fact that the Booker Prize is often the subject of judging controversies (some Booker judges, like Nicholas Mosley in 1991 and Julia Neuberger in 1994, have resigned or openly expressed their displeasure at the choices of the rest of the jury) points to both the cultural significance of the prize and the subjectivity of its judgements. Since the majority of the new prizes are for novels, many claim that they take attention away from other genres like short story collections and poetry. This stipulation also creates problems of definition; for example, there was some controversy over the award of the Booker to Thomas Keneally’s work of ‘faction’, Schindler’s Ark, in 1982. The NCR Book Award is a highly lucrative prize for non-fiction, but the press attention it receives is significantly less than the fiction prizes. Some critics complain that, since the initial selection process for the prizes usually involves publishers nominating a set number of books from their lists to be considered by the juries, and the publishers tend to pick works by their established successful authors, it is hard for first novelists or less well-known authors to be shortlisted. Other observers have criticized the ageism of several of the prizes; the Somerset Maugham and Eric Gregory awards and the Mail on Sunday/ John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, for instance, are only open to writers under thirty-five.
   Supporters of the prizes maintain that they promote ‘literary’ fiction and other forms of ‘serious’ literature in an era when they are in danger of being squeezed out by the commercial imperatives of large publishers. They argue that the public arguments over the merits of the respective shortlists are both inevitable and healthy, and that these shortlists generally seek to represent English-language fiction in all its diversity. The Booker Prize in particular can certainly not be accused of little Englandism, since it has brought post-colonial fiction to a British readership through recent wins for authors such as Salman Rushdie (1981), J.M. Coetzee (1983), Peter Carey (1988) and Ben Okri (1991).
   See also: novel; poetry; popular fiction
   Further reading
    Todd, R. (1996) Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today, London: Bloomsbury (the only full-length study of the new literary ‘prize culture’, this is a readable and largely positive account of the effects of the prizes on the consumption of literary fiction in the UK).
   JOE MORAN

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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