Do you remember which novel won the last Man Booker Prize? Do you care which novel won the last Man Booker Prize? Are literary awards a significant feature on your reading radar or do they pass you by unnoticed? They’re a big deal for many in the book world to be sure; they’re also pretty much guaranteed to divide opinion.
I remember many years ago, when I was first embarking on the reading journey of my adult life, I bought a box set of Booker Prize winners. I was incredibly excited by this purchase; it felt as if someone had placed in my hands the literary foundation from which all future knowledge and love of books would grow. So I started reading. One or two I quite enjoyed. One I abandoned after a couple of chapters in a state of utter bewilderment. Most of them I finished, but with a feeling that they were definitely languishing near the lower end of the enjoyment scale. I was disappointed. In all honesty that experience put me off literary prizes for quite a while, purely because it sparked an ongoing assumption that such awards were reserved for the dry, the joyless and the inaccessible. I no longer believe that’s true, having read a few prize-winners I thought were genuinely phenomenal; the difference is that today I’m guided much more by what I think I’ll enjoy than whether it has a literary award sticker on the cover.
Do I think that book prizes are of any real importance? 100% yes. I’ve worked in the book trade for thirteen years, and the enormous spike in interest that follows a novel’s victory is remarkable. Seeing first-hand how many people are inspired to pick up a book as a result of a prize’s publicity is truly heartening. Whether those people chose to read that novel because it held a particular appeal for them or whether they were simply curious to read an award winner doesn’t matter – to have thousands of people taking part in what is essentially a mass reading event is a wonderful thing. Maybe some have been inspired to start reading by a prize-winning book, and that’s fantastic too. If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a book-lover, so I’m sure you’ll share my view that any initiative or event that keeps people reading and ensures that books stay at the forefront of our cultural landscape is to be celebrated. Literary prizes aren’t the only way of achieving that to be sure, but they have their part to play.
There will always be a certain amount of controversy surrounding the workings of the prizes themselves. Are the right people judging them? Are they choosing shortlists and winners for the right reasons? Indeed, what are the right reasons – is it about accessibility or literary merit, and are the two mutually exclusive? I guess it’s impossible for an award that judges any kind of artistic endeavour to pass without vociferous differences of opinion; it’s the nature of the beast, the nature of art. But literary prizes are here to stay, and I for one am very grateful for that.
So what about the prize-winners I loved and loathed? The worst has to be “A Confederacy of Dunces”, regarded as a modern classic I know but sadly not a classic for me! And the best…well, this is a bit of a trickier one. My two candidates are recent novels: “All the light we cannot see”, which won this year’s Pulitzer (and about which you can hear me raving elsewhere on the blog!) and “The Luminaries”, awarded the Man Booker a couple of years ago. After careful consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t possibly pick a winner. Pitting two such different books against each other? I think I’d best leave that judgement to the experts…