Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why We Care About Literary Awards

Over at The Millions today, Mark O'Connell uses the occasion of the Booker long-list to ask a question that always seems to crop up around award time:
 ...why do we even care about this stuff? So Tom McCarthy — or whoever it was you might have wanted to win — didn’t get a prize. Does it really matter? By and large, awards like the Booker are intended to promote solid, well-written, more or less middlebrow fiction — the kind of books that broadsheet newspapers tend to give coverage to. And that’s surely a good thing for the publishing industry, for the literary editors of papers that still have books pages, for the small number of writers who get the nod, for booksellers and (I would guess) for the manufacturers of those stickers that get slapped with startling speed onto the dust jackets of shortlisted titles. But does it really matter at any other level — at the level, for instance, of literary culture as opposed to the publishing industry? I’m not convinced it does.
He then goes on to make a set of fairly common (and true) observations about literary prizes--that not everyone who deserves one gets one, that some of the past winners don't hold up well, that the prizes don't really reflect literary merit, and so forth. His argument, at its core, goes something like this: if a prize doesn't line-up with actual merit or import, then the prize really doesn't deserve the amount of attention it gets.

There are a couple of problems with this way of thinking. First is the old problem of "merit." It should be clear by now that there is no objective standard of literary merit by which we can measure the relative accuracy of given prize. The literary community might determine that certain works are more meritorious than others, and that, over time, should become part of the literary main. This doesn't mean that they are objectively better nor does it mean that their place at the head table is permanent. The canon, and I use that term loosely, is susceptible to change, and can do so dramatically (especially over relatively short periods of time).

The other reason we might care about literary prizes even if they do not accurately gauge achievement is, well, people care about literary prizes. Literary prizes are the last stage of the mainstream curation stage that starts with agents, then to publishers, then to reviewers, and then to awards panels. For many readers, a literary prize gives them the confidence to buy/borrow a novel/biography/history because they think that it is a fairly reliable indicator of quality.

So a pretty good reason to care about what book gets a particular award is that it channels a precious resource to that book--readerly attention. This, for those of us who care about literature, is both extremely interesting and hugely important. The books people read, get discussed, added to syllabi, and become part of our literary consciousness will inevitably shape that consciousness.

I'll end here with a reference to the next section after the quotation above:
I recently taught a night course focusing on novels which have won the Booker over the course of its short history. It was a hugely fun class to teach. The students were predominantly in their fifties, sixties, and seventies — retirees, middle-aged professionals and empty-nesters, mainly, who wanted to be better informed on contemporary fiction. 
The students in this class were using the Booker as a proxy for contemporary fiction. Whether or not we think that is reasonable position doesn't really matter; the position exists already. The answer to his question it turns out was sitting right in front of him: we should care about literary prizes because people care about literary prizes.


  1. A literary prize catches the reading audience's attention, thus presenting that book as a valuable read.  I haven't always enjoyed those books chosen, but still love to read them to gain my own opinion of what the literary community deems valuable.

  2. Yes, I often dislike the books that win those major awards (and often wonder why they're so ubiquitous and are already bestsellers...), but I sometimes completely and totally agree with awards (Wolf Hall, Wolf Hall!). Awards are so varied and so different that it's very difficult to reach any conclusions about them without generalizing. No, I don't like some of the past Booker winners, but they indicate books that certain people did like and did think have a place in our literary existence. I don't see how that's different than trusting reviews and then realizing that you actually don't like the book and it's not your style.

    Also, your assessment of merit is spot-on. Wonderful post.