December 6, 2019

Is the age of prizes over?


A trophy: people not that fussed about them now

OK this might be a difficult one to tackle in a few hundred words, but here’s the gist: do we need prizes any more? Do we want them? Because, the way things are going at the moment, it looks awfully like we don’t.

Last year, the Everyman Bollinger Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction announced it had failed to find a novel funny enough to win the 2018 prize. Then, in October, it was revealed that this year’s Booker Prize would be split between Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. (The BBC has since come under fire—and subsequently apologised—for naming the two winners as ‘Margaret Atwood and another author’).

Earlier this week, the Literary Review awarded their annual Bad Sex Award, a.k.a ‘Britain’s most dreaded literary award’ to Didier Decoin and John Harvey—not that either man would have minded losing out, you feel.

Away from books, it was also announced this week that The Turner Prize would be split between all four nominated artists, after they intervened in the judging process to volunteer to share it. The Guardian reported their joint statement, which said the awarding of one winner “would undermine our individual artistic efforts to show a world entangled. The issues we each deal with are as inseparable as climate chaos is from capitalism.”

This idea of linked causes is interesting, and the nominees rightly assert that notion of promoting one work over the other is inherently conflicting. And don’t get me wrong: there’s still a place for prizes when they highlight brilliant, innovative work that might otherwise be overlooked (see: Ducks, Newburyport‘s Goldsmiths win last month).

Yet with juries apparently more reluctant to pick an outright winner these days, perhaps it’s just time to rethink the whole format: might it be enough simply to be nominated…? To aspire to recognition rather than victory? Or has publishing become so reliant on prizewinners that the inevitable dilution of sales would be akin to a catastrophe? It’s difficult to say, but in the meantime, it seems we can only expect more stories like this to emerge.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.