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Thoughts on Literary Awards

Literary awards and prizes have been around for centuries, with the first British Award for Literature established in 1919 (The James Tait Black Memorial Prize). However, the concept of awarding prizes for art and literature dates back to the Ancient Greeks who competed for prizes offered for the best plays. Interestingly, the endurance of literary awards shows no signs of lessening; arguably, they are only gaining in momentum as more and more publicity and prestige is being placed on the winners. Publishing and commercial decisions are increasingly being made on the outcome of these awards, as are the decisions of consumers, who look to these awards for their next read. In light of this rise, a series of questions surface: should awards and prizes have such a stronghold in the world of literature? Do they do more harm than good? Can writing be accurately measured in a contest?

Indisputably, literary awards are crucial in today’s publishing world. Booksellers and publishers have been quick to capitalise on the publicity generated by awards such as the Costa Book Awards and the Booker Prize. So why were these awards launched, and have they become simply a publicity opportunity? The Booker Prize, now one of the most prestigious literary awards, was set up in 1968 as a result of discussion between Booker and the Publishers Association about the need for a significant literary prize in Britain. Its aim was to “stimulate public interest and controversy, reward merit and increase the sales of books”. But how far have literary awards digressed from their aims? There is no surprise that the rise in the prestige of these awards has led, in turn, to an increase in publicity and prize money. The Booker Prize’s lucrative monetary sum of £50,000 blurs the line between culture and commerce; the literary value of a text therefore becomes more and more intertwined with its commercial value. However, this does not necessarily have to be viewed in a negative light. By industry standards the £50,000 prize is a substantial reward and indeed, rare in the literary world. This highlights that few authors today can afford to write solely for art’s sake; they must make a living in some way.

Although these awards often proclaim their intention to ‘reward merit’, the criteria for excellence in literature are entirely subjective which poses a major issue as to the validity of the awards. It may be argued that because the verdicts of a prize board are potentially liable to error, these prizes remind us uncomfortably closely of what the works being judged are about: the human condition. In this way, whether literature can ever be accurately valued is something certainly up for debate. The dual 2019 Booker prize win for Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo reminds us that distinguishing between the value of literary works is more difficult than it might seem. The judges’ decision to break the rules and jointly award the prize tells us that determining the merit of literary works can sometimes be a bit like comparing apples and oranges; every work can have a perceived value in its own and individual way. Although it can be said that, despite differences in taste, it is still possible to determine whether a work is inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, distinguishing between ‘good’ works is arguably, not entirely possible. The issue of social value set against artistic and commercial value prevents the formation of a comprehensive measure of worth. 

Literary awards not only impact the commercial success of authors and publishing houses, but also inform the canon of contemporary literature. Many Booker Prize-winning novels, like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, have ended up as set texts in schools or on university courses. Others, like The English Patient or Life of Pi, have been made into blockbuster films. Most significantly, however, writers who are longlisted or shortlisted for prestigious literary awards can expect an immediate boost in sales. Central to all of this is how literary prizes have embraced controversy by exploiting publicity to further its economic success. This reflects the philosophy that lies at the heart of such prizes, which have indeed stimulated ‘huge public interest, controversy and sales’. The Nobel Prize for Literature has been hit by a series of scandals in the last ten years, including the sexual assault scandal of 2018. The Swedish Academy, which oversees the prestigious award, suspended it in 2018 after numerous allegations against Jean-Claude Arnault, the husband of Academy member Katarina Frostenson. This incident also raises issues concerning the makeup of academies and awards committees. Arguably, those who decide these awards wield the most power in the sphere of literary awards; their qualifications, bias and background all play an implicit role in the committee’s decisions.

In light of the sexual assault scandal, the 2018 prize was instead awarded in 2019: Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 prize and Austria’s Peter Handke was awarded the 2019 prize. However, these decisions spun into their own scandal. Peter Handke, the playwright, novelist and poet, was recognised for ‘an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience’. However, his support of the Serbs during the 1990s Yugoslav Wars and his speech at the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic (who was charged with violating the UN Genocide Convention) was quickly brought to light. These events raised an important question within the sphere of literary awards: should a writer’s political views and actions outside of their work be considered as part of the deliberations for the award itself? And what role do literary awards have in dictating morality within the literary community? Effectively, the actions of this powerful literary institution gave a voice to an individual whose moral compass can be questioned; the lack of foresight and sensitivity exemplifies the potential for literary awards to harm literature and its associated communities.

As much as literary awards have run into issues over the past years, they are undoubtedly here to stay. Recent technological innovations have allowed us to discover new ways of assigning literary awards. The winners of the Goodreads Choice Awards are decided by the public through an online vote. In 2020, more than 5.6 million votes were cast; this method of allowing readers rather than literary judges to assign the awards may be the future of literary prizes. At the heart of this model is the theory that the combined judgement of millions of readers is best placed to determine a book’s value. Even though the Goodreads Choice Awards is not a longstanding award, it is a reflection of the preferences of readers and the way in which new technology can contribute to the spreading of literature. Nonetheless, critics of this model have voiced their opinions. They have cited the fact that some texts were condemned by their contemporary readership at the time of publication, but rehabilitated later on once social contexts had changed. Even so, the most obvious criticism of vote-based awards like Goodreads becomes clear upon consulting any bestseller list which acts as a similar, popularity-centric metric. These lists are based purely on sales and therefore, are arguably not good judges of literary merit. The increasingly intertwined relationship between literary awards and technology has also indicated a potential evolution in the profession of the author. The social media obsessed era we are currently living in has meant that authors are turning to the internet to promote and discuss their books. Online reviews by readers themselves have become even more important in the reception of a new book. Marketing knowledge is now becoming a crucial skill for a successful author.

The criteria for the awarding of literary prizes have also evolved and are set to evolve further. Arguably, one of the first indications of this change was Bob Dylan’s 2016 Nobel win for his lyrics, becoming the first songwriter to win the award. The Academy awarded him the prize “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” After the announcement, Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said, ‘we’re really giving it to Bob Dylan as a great poet – that’s the reason we awarded him the prize.’ The debate on whether his work merited this award or should have even been considered for this award was a lively one. Yet, the decision of the judges to award a songwriter and musical artist the most prestigious literary award shows their willingness to open up the term ‘Literature’ to various art forms. Indeed, as Salman Rushdie said, ‘the frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel prize recognises that.’

One thing is indisputable: so many cultures, over many centuries, have felt it vital to award prizes to works of literature— which is to say, literature and art in general is prized. Although their stronghold and increasing influence in the world of literature may cause anxiety for some, ultimately the concern that fuels our complaints about the Nobel, Pulitzer and Booker prizes is one about the ambiguities of value and merit, about who deserves it and how it operates. The nature of literature’s subjectivity means the choices of these juries should be taken with a pinch of salt, but what they do achieve is the spotlighting of works that us, as readers, might draw our own value from. Finally, in light of the ever-changing nature of the literary landscape and the possibility for new ways of determining literary value in the future, these prizes might just have to do for now.

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