Its’ award season once again. Those months of the year during which the Eisteddfod, the Wales Book of the Year, the Dylan Thomas Prize and all the other lesser events give out their gongs. Winners will proliferate. But is the achievement real? Prizes? You get them by chance, because you know the judges, because your name fits, because you were in the right place at the right time, because your publisher pushed you, because of bribery, because it’s a fix.
As far as I can tell this latter accusation may run true in America but has little foundation here at home. Scandal, however, is a prize season currency. If things do not go according to plan the press come out in droves, delighted. Book cock-ups make headlines and have been doing so for years.
Back when the Nobel Prize was virtually the only literary award operating its first winner wasn’t contender Leo Tolstoy but a minor French poet called Sully Prudhomme. How could the judges be so blind? Quite easily, as it transpired. In future years they went on to omit Hardy, Ibsen, Kafka, Proust, Valery, Rilke and James Joyce. Did the award signify outstanding literary talent and world-beating prowess, asked the press? Clearly not.
In 1974 conflict of interest mired the Booker Prize when one of the judges, the wife of Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Jane Howard, short listed her husband’s Ending Up. In later years the same pattern repeated. Judges pushed works by their spouses, sons, lovers, agents and publishers. Can there be anyone on the scene who is truly independent?
James Kelman won the 1994 Booker with a novel in thick Glaswegian dialect, How Late It Was, How Late (in which the world’s favourite swear word appears more than 4000 times). It emerged that the judges had selected his book not because it was their first choice but rather to block the first choices of others. Judge Julia Neuberger broke rank after the ceremony and denounced the work as rubbish. The author, she said, “was just a drunken Scotsman”.
In Wales the Book of the Year attracts similar disturbances, although not quite on the same scale. Who will ever forget the Minister who read out the wrong name as winner? YouTube certainly won’t. In the long past there have been judges who have leaked and who have publicly disagreed. There have been writers who have been upset and those who have promised to give their award to charity and didn’t. And then there have been those who have immediately vanished from the literary scene without a trace thus underlining the award’s efficacy.
Overall, however this Welsh Booker has been a cracking success. Increasing sales, great winners, excitement, entertainment, literature as a horse race. The short list for 2011 is here