Friday, October 14, 2011

The Literature Prize: snobbery or a good thing?

Announced yesterday by a group of publishers and agents: the Literature Prize, designed to counteract the dumbing down (I'm paraphrasing) of the Man Booker Prize. The advisory board of the new prize sent out this press release:

We are delighted to announce the launch of a new literary prize.

The Literature Prize will be for the best novel written in the English language and published in the UK in a given year, and a writer's country of origin will not be a factor. Our aim is to establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence, and the prize judges will be selected in rotation from an academy of experts in the field of literature.

The prize will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of these expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition. For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize's administrator and this year's judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of 'readability' over artistic achievement.

We believe though that great writing has the power to change us, to make us see the world a little differently from how we saw it before, and that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and celebrate the very best novels published in our time.

The Literature Prize has been enthusiastically endorsed by numerous people in the publishing industry, as well as writers including John Banville, Pat Barker, Mark Haddon, Jackie Kay, Nicole Krauss, Claire Messud, Pankaj Mishra and David Mitchell, with an additional number of high-profile writers offering strong support behind the scenes.

We are currently procuring funding for the prize and will be making an announcement about this soon.

For further information please contact: Andrew Kidd ( or +44 7525 210 780)

There are many articles on this new prize (see, for example, the Independent and Publishers Weekly). None of them explores one of my concerns: funding. Who's going to pay for this? The Man Booker is prestigious because it has serious money behind it: payment for judges, for publicity, for the prize itself. Not cheap. I'm guessing the Man Booker annual budget is not too far off $100,000. Litfolk are notoriously cheap (partly because we're notoriously bad with money). They/we will lend our names, but not our cash. I'm not convinced this prize will thrive.

That would be a pity. I believe in literary prizes. They make a difference to careers and income. (I speak from personal experience.) The more the merrier. Having said that, I'm not impressed by the tone of this one. Insulting another award is not a good way to begin.

There's nothing wrong with readable novels. There's nothing wrong with challenging novels. But the real artistry of literature is to combine the two in one package and to do it so that it looks effortless. That's what I aim to do with every single novel I write: challenge the reader with concepts, relationships, and thought experiments, while helping the reader into those concepts, relationships, and thought experiments. The writing that changes the world is more about the feather on the arrow, not the feather in the cap.

Many so-called difficult books are difficult, frankly, because the writer isn't very good at helping the reader. Many so-called easy-read books are easy because they give readers exactly what they expect and so don't challenge their thinking. Truly great writing takes years to learn, decades to practice. (No one ever 'perfects' writing.) Easy books and difficult books are written by the mediocre and talented beginners.

I could go on about all this at length. Except, oh wait, I already have. If you want to read more, take a look at the following essays and/or rants:

Meanwhile, I'll get back to my novel-in-progress. When I come up for air, I'd love to get your opinion on this.

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