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What makes a perfect prize?

What makes a perfect prize?

In a review of D.J. Taylor's impressive survey of a century of British literary life, The Prose Factory, the distinguished critic Stefan Collini briefly addressed the role of prizes in shaping the reading tastes of the public. He's not a huge fan of prizes: ‘They are artificially contrived 'races' which can have only one 'winner' because that’s what generates the coverage necessary to increase the profits of the book trade.’ Well, he's entitled to his opinion even if he dismisses the fact that the Man Booker, for example, brings quality fiction to a huge reading public. Collini went on to suggest: ‘If we really thought they [prizes] were serious exercises in discriminating judgement, we would 1) compose the juries of people with some claim to be good at that activity, 2) ask them to publish an argued case for the merits or demerits of the books they have read, and 3) resist the silly idea that one single book is 'better' than all the others.’ If the professor looked at most serious prize juries, especially the Man Booker, he would see that they are indeed largely composed of people with some claim to literary expertise. If he asked jurors they would tell him that they do indeed tend to keep notes on what they read precisely for those (admittedly unpublished) discussions about ‘merits and demerits’. He might ask them too why after reading say 140 novels some half dozen will invariably appear on all five judges' personal shortlists. What does that betoken other than that some books really are ‘better’ than others?


Coincidentally, the current chair of Man Booker judges, Amanda Foreman, has just addressed the same question. While admitting that some prize juries are far from perfect she noted that what is rarely discussed by critics is the ‘unrecognised (and often unpaid) work that writers undertake so that their colleagues get the recognition they deserve. They do it in the belief that the pursuit of excellence lifts everyone. I was a Man Booker judge in 2012, the year that Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, was the chair and Hilary Mantel won for Bring up the Bodies. He ran each meeting with a purpose and intellectual zeal that made us all strive to be better versions of ourselves. The experience brought us together and we remain good friends. I shall do my best to keep the flame going.’ Not a bad mission statement.


The coming year promises to be a very good one for readers and a very difficult one for Amanda Foreman and her fellow judges. A slew of Man Booker writers have new novels out. Julian Barnes's The Noise of Time is due this month; Graham Swift's Mothering Sunday in February; as is Howard Jacobson's Shylock is My Name; while Yann Martel's The High Mountains of Portugal is due in May and Nicola Barker's The Cauliflower is another spring release. Later in the year watch out for Louise Doughty's Black Water, Emma Donoghue's The Wonder and Deborah Levy's Hot Milk.


The Royal Society of Literature, the nation's most esteemed literary society, runs a series of masterclasses for aspiring writers in conjunction with the Booker Prize Foundation (the prize's charitable wing). The classes are limited to 14 lucky writers and are overseen but some very eminent writers indeed – among them, Hilary Mantel, Jim Crace, William Boyd and Adam Foulds. Other tutors include the two former Man Booker winners Penelope Lively (Moon Tiger, 1987) and Howard Jacobson (The Finkler Question, 2010). This pair gave their classes various tips on their specialisms; Lively on the theme ‘What we remember’ and Jacobson on ‘How to write a comic novel’. According to Lively, aspiring memoir writers should let their ‘memoir writing reflect the workings of  memory’ and foster the story element of their writing. Jacobson's dos and don'ts included ‘Don’t try to be funny’, ‘Don't give characters funny names’ and ‘Underwear isn't funny. Neither are exclamation marks.’ Fair points all round.