Evelyn Conlon: prize culture devalues art of writing

I am saddened for the apprentice writers who think that the only way their work can be judged is by a prize listing. What an awful thing for the industry to subject writers to

My fear is that we’re in danger of losing the challenge of [the independent bookshop]. What happens now is that the window can be bought and that all that exciting innovative work has been bulldozed by giddy marketing. Too many people now make straight for the prize-winning shelf. I am not averse to the notion of the occasional prize, and yes I understand that it is a method of bringing attention to the as yet unknown, but when the bookshop experience seems like you’ve been tipped into a tombola then clearly we have lost sight of the art of finding our own books.

I am of course seriously aware that this is a very tricky area for a writer to touch – we don’t do it because we are afraid of being accused of having sour grapes. But I’ll chance it, because far too many of us are being silenced by this tyranny and are afraid to be counted as skeptics. I see the over-emphasis on prizes as the devaluation of all those wonderful mysteries we were out looking for. For all that hope flying in on wings. For the expectation that we would have to search for a book that might satisfy our particular curiosities.

Now there seems to be a conspiracy to have us all reading the same book at the same time. What could be more awful, more anathema to a non-school-goer’s right to life? Leaving aside the fact that, yes, a prize listing has become the new black, think for a moment what multinational publishing company has control over what is even allowed to be entered, never mind make it for consideration.

Of course the occasional maverick gets through, the occasional voice that adds a special light to the way you fit yourself in the world, but surely we must be suspicious of the narrowing consensus of what makes a good work? Suspicious of those who decide talent on marketability and on how “palatable” we can make a real story. In that past era of ferocious questioning we were thoroughly exercised by who got to decide the Canon. We were going to change it, forever. And we did in some ways, but unfortunately we merely handed it to a different set of the same faces, this time including the prize givers.

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I have recently heard of a book being given a prize because it had been given a prize. When Ben Okri takes it on himself to advise African writers about how to make it, he may be doing so with a heavy heart. He may be suggesting a narrowing of the view to what will pass the boardroom and the new gatekeeper who turns out to have not dissimilar tactics to the old. “It doesn’t sing for us”, I was recently told, about a book I had just enjoyed. “I should sincerely hope not,” I said, “it’s a book, not a canary”.

At the risk of sounding like a creaking fossil, I suggest that in the 1980s you didn’t buy a book because it was on The X Factor; you picked it by what was written on the back of it, and if you were fascinated by the time you’d finished reading it, you told someone else. Just in case you think that was all plain sailing, don’t get me wrong, you could make a mistake. I was once so taken by a back cover and a first page that I bought the book as a present for several people. I still cringe, because I cannot remember exactly who they are, so there are people out there who think I agree with the politics in that dreadful book that I shall not name. And yet I’ll have to admit that there’s a kind of freedom in buying a book just because there’s something on the back of it that you don’t understand, or disagree with.

What Sisterwrite and those related bookshops were about was getting varying views, not being corralled into reading one book because it had bestowed on it, not one, but all the prizes that year. This is a worldwide problem. David Foster bravely brought it up when he was accepting a prize himself, the Patrick White Literary Award, the honour that White set up with his Nobel prize money specifically for authors who have made a significant, but inadequately-recognised, contribution to Australian literature. Or, as Foster put it: “a kind of literary loser’s compo’’. He also went on to take a swipe at another, unnamed, writer (clearly JM Coetzee) for putting “his hand up for every prize, including – can you believe it? – the Randwick Council Literature Award’’ despite having a Nobel and two Booker prizes.

I bring this up because I am increasingly saddened for the apprentice writers who think that the only way their work can be judged is by a prize listing. I’ve been in rooms where younger writers don’t think they’re alive if they’re not on some list. How terrible. And what an awful thing for the industry to be subjecting writers to. As if it wasn’t hard enough to do the work, then to have yourself entered into a ring against your colleagues.

Fay Weldon once remarked that prize ceremonies were not so much about rewarding the chosen winner but more about watching the cheque being snatched away from the others on the list. Surely this is not what a writing life should be about.

And let’s make something else clear that pertains to Irish writers. It is not true that the many large prizes are open to Irish writers as is always claimed. They cannot be entered for any of the prizes that take place in Britain unless they are published by a British publisher. And not everyone is going to be published in England: why would they be? Also clearly there is a certain type of Irish literature which will never be published there. Naturally.

Now, wouldn’t it be an interesting boost to the Irish publishing industry if the Impac prize was only open to books published in Ireland? How that would change the landscape of what is lauded as representing us. Yes, I am sometimes filled with despair standing in front of a group of beginning writers who ask me about prizes. Should I tell them that if they are aiming to live a life on tenterhooks they might just be better taking up playing poker machines?