Everyone in our family wins prizes.
There are prizes for everything.
There is best pie. (I didn’t win that one.)
There are cross-country ski prizes. (I didn’t win those.)
There are P.R. prizes. (I did win one of those, though I don’t consider myself particularly adept at it.)
The only monetary prize I ever won was the Latin Prize in college. I got $25, “enough for a bag of groceries,” as the chair of the department optimistically announced.
Mostly at our house we’ve won prizes for work.
Somewhere in boxes, I have several plaques and framed certificates. I’m honored to have won them, but honestly? One was a state award I can’t remember the name of. The notification didn’t come until after the awards luncheon.
Once I was even a judge for a prize. Let’s just call it Best Cake, though it wasn’t for a cake. I took it very seriously, and suggested the prize should go to a superb baker I genuinely thought had made the best cake. Everybody on the committee was surprised I hadn’t nominated one of my friends.
“That’s conflict of interest,” I said.
Earnest, aren’t I?
I am fascinated by the big literary awards, especially the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, because I add the finalists and winner to my reading lists.
Before I began reading the Guardian and The Telegraph (is that “O frabjous day!” or “Oh woe!”?), my faith in the integrity of literary judges was unshakable. Perhaps the witty opening chapter of Margaret Drabble’s novel, The Sea Lady, reinforced my conviction that awards had meaning. The heroine, Ailsa, a science book prize judge, is very pleased that her silver sequined mermaid-style dress complements the theme of the award-winning book (it’s about fish). But then she wonders,
Would it be suspected that she, as chair of the judges for the shortlist, had favoured a winner to match her sequined gown, and had pressed it for its triumph? Surely not. For although she was derided in sections of the press as an ardent self-publicist, she was also known to be incorruptible. The sea-green, silvery, incorruptible Ailsa. And her fellow-judges were not of a calibre to submit to bullying or manipulation.
Drabble served as a judge for the Aventis Science Book Prize in 2003. She has, however, her doubts about the Booker Prize. When a reporter at The Telegraph in 2011 asked about her never winning the Booker, she said,
“That’s because I won’t allow my books to be entered for it. The Booker is designed to make people cross with one another. Look what it did to Martin Amis and Julian Barnes. In the mid-eighties, I thought it was getting out of hand and how right I was. That was before my sister won [for Possession in 1990].”
James Wood, the very intellectual critic for The New Yorker, begins an article on James Kelman (in the Aug. 25 issue ) by chatting about his experience as a Booker judge in 1994, the year the prize went to James Kelman for How Late It Was, How Late.
The decision was contentious. For most of us judges, the prize gave recognition to a significant and consistently challenging writer, whose experiments with vernacular speech and internal monologue had produced some of the most stubbornly interesting work in recent British fiction. To others on the panel, his novel was monotonous, unpunctuated, and foulmouthed. (“Every other word is ‘fuck’ ” was the usual reproach.) One of the judges marched out of the room, promising to denounce the decision to the media.
I loved James Kelman’s book.
There are so many stories about literary judge squabbles.
In the U.S. there seems to be less interest in literary prizes than in the UK. No bets, as far as I know. The nominees and winners are announced, but that’s about it. I do know one wicked Pulitzer Prize story. In 2012, the board refused to award the prize for fiction: the fiction jury had nominated David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!
Now what was that about?
Who didn’t like whom?
On the contrary, I haven’t heard much gossip about The National Book Awards, which are the closest thing to the Booker in the U.S. (Do they run a tighter ship?) In 2011, there was a mistake: Lauren Myracle was phoned to say her book Shine was nominated for best Y.A. novel for the National Book Award. It turned out the nominee was Franny Billingsley, author of Chime.
Many of us–most of us?–are earnest, sincere, politically unaware readers who want the prizes to be just what they are–prizes.
More about books and less about the judges!
And here’s an R.E.M. song, nothing about prizes, but just because I haven’t posted an R.E.M. video in a while. Enjoy!