Good, better, best

Good, better, best?

I was struck by a line in a Guardian article in the arts section about the finalists for a well-known photography award: the writer was wondering how a photograph of such banality could have won the prize. Presumably someone—one’s assuming at least a quorum on the judging panel anyway—thought the entry stunning, exciting, original, technically outstanding and the best in its field. But that’s the problem with awarding prizes for art forms, which are (almost by definition) subjective: someone with excellent credentials always disagrees with the choice.
In 2012 the judging panel of three fiction jurors read 300 novels for the Pulitzer prize, which is covered in this illuminating article:
http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/letter-from-the-pulitzer-fiction-jury-what-really-happened-this-year One of those judges wrote: “Many of the entries were easy to dismiss as trivial, or badly written or lurid or overblown or mawkish.” Which does make me wonder just how quickly into the reading process those entries were thrown aside as being unworthy. One of the judges shot himself in the foot by admitting that each of them had a very different set of criteria and that “members of any jury are possessed of particular tastes and opinions and… absolute objectivity is impossible.” Mysteriously, the board decided that year not to award the prize at all, which raises its own questions. Were they not looking in the right place? Why have judges at all if you overrule them? Who are on this board anyway?
Writing and other art forms are so obviously not like running a race, or getting the most goals or answering the most correct questions in a pub quiz. Personally, one of the absolutely best aspects of going in for creative activities is that it’s almost impossible to be wrong, and that realisation is incredible liberating. So how destructive might it be to put yourself forward for an award where the word failure hangs unspoken over everyone who didn’t win? Hypocrisy rules, of course: before you ask, I’d be the first to rejoice if someone told me my book was the best they’d ever read.
The novelist Edward St Aubyn has written a book called Lost For Words, which Deborah Cohen reviews in an article for American Prospect: http://prospect.org/article/have-literary-prizes-lost-their-meaning-have-they-ever-had-any
The novel is a hilarious satire on the shoddy (and shady) goings-on amongst the judges of a literary prize and includes celebrity judges who don’t bother to read the books and a cookbook—included by accident—which makes it to the final stages. It’s not obvious whether this is written by a disappointed and embittered “loser”, someone with insider knowledge or just a writer enjoying a fictitious peek into that world. But Deborah Cohen makes a more serious and controversial point. “Cultural prizes notoriously reward the wrong works for the wrong reasons,” she writes. Stirring stuff. I have been part of a book group for twenty years and we are these days pretty wary of reading a “prize-winning novel” as too many of us have found them over long, unfathomable and—unsurprisingly—over-hyped.
Tim Parks—himself a seriously good writer—is disarmingly honest about literary awards and, in an article in the New York Review of Books,
http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/oct/06/why-nobel-prize-literature-silly/ talks us through the selection process for no less an award than the Nobel Prize for Literature.He goes into some detail about the political, historical and cultural baggage which has come to dictate the award. He concludes by admitting the “essential silliness of the prize and our own foolishness at taking it seriously.” (I assume, though that the nominees take it seriously!) I’m sure that being nominated for a literary prize must feel great. It means that before the process has even started you belong to a club of writers pre-selected for their excellence. Why would you not take it seriously? Unfortunately very few literary prizes are open to independently published authors, and until that changes I can simply plough my own creative furrow with integrity and passion and rejoice at every satisfied reader. Reward enough, for now.

Julia Draper

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