Greg Rakozy/ Unsplash
Greg Rakozy/ Unsplash

The shifting tide of book prizes

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In a bookshop with a friend, you watch them pick up a hardback, turn to you and ask if you’ve read it. You respond that you haven’t, and inquire about the plot.

‘I don’t know,’ they’ll say, walking towards the counter. ‘But it won an award, so it must be good.’

This is the economy of the modern novel. In the age of social media, publicity is often all that matters. Winning a prize for one’s writing can both fund an author’s work and shoot their novel up the bestseller lists. For most writers, it’s an impossible dream. However, given the politics and genre preferences of the world of critics, that wasn’t their fault to begin with. The prizes were simply impossible to win for one whose talents lay in world-building and bringing life to the fantastic, over poetic prose and the implementation of philosophy into everyday life.

With recognition of our most beloved books falling, the popularity of the prizes risks falling too.

Until recently, the winner of a given prize was often predictable. Historical, dramatic literature with a focus on a few characters facing philosophical and moral crises would steal the show every time. There’s a certain liberty in rewarding the same genres each and every year: nobody can challenge an appraisal of literature similar to what has been celebrated for decades, and there is no doubt that this formula presents some opportunity for variation and, of course, a beautiful book.

However, this comes at a cost. With the exception of The Life of Pi in 2002, no book that could be directly considered ‘fantasy’ has won the Man Booker Prize since 1991. The Famished Road, by Ben Okri, told the story of a boy caught between the spirit world and the real world. It won the award ten years after the previous fantasy book in 1981, when Salman Rushdie received the prize for Midnight’s Children – the magical yet realistic tale of a young telepath in the new nations of South Asia, following their liberation from the British Empire. Similar patterns can be observed amid other general literature prizes. Considering the most popular genres of fiction are romance, adventure, science fiction, fantasy and speculative, these large gaps between any of the latter four winning prizes has taken its toll. Now, fantasy authors are amongst the hardest hit by the economic struggles of the writing community, and with recognition of our most beloved books falling, the popularity of the prizes risks falling too. While some bibliophiles will be like our friend in the bookshop, buying a hardback simply because it has received a reward, other readers neglect to follow the prizes altogether, feeling that the ‘norm’ for appraised novels is a story that would never, and could never, appeal to them.

But that could all be about to change.

Kazuo Ishiguro has mastered the quiet, yet profound, fantastical story. Novels like Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant are both speculative in nature, yet are written in a way that focuses on the everyday — the “little people” in complex, well-built worlds that show us the lives of struggling clones in a dystopia, and an old married couple seeking a dragon. His winning of the Nobel Prize has sent shockwaves around the literary world, if not due to the great love of his writing, then for how different his writing is to the standard winner.

The age of a set ‘formula’ to prize-winning literature may be reaching its end, ushering in an era in which respect for an author’s imagination can be equal to that of their prose.

Ishiguro is not the only one who has produced a tour de force that crosses genre lines in its pursuit of something more. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward blurs the lines between ghost story and the most living and human of tales about a broken family, combining elements of the supernatural with the most natural thing of all: emotion. George Saunders is an example of this as the most recent winner of the Man Booker Prize, and like Rushdie and Okri before him, he does so with a speculative novel. Lincoln in the Bardo follows President Lincoln as he seeks his recently deceased son in the titular Bardo — an interesting, haunting take on the concept of limbo.

While one of these authors receiving an award could be called an exception to the trend, all of them winning within one year may mark the start of a new trend altogether.  The age of a set ‘formula’ to prize-winning literature may be reaching its end, ushering in an era in which respect for an author’s imagination can be equal to that of their prose. Books should be rewarded for their quality in all aspects, not just in relation to the questions they raise and the thoughts they provoke. Saunders himself called Lincoln in the Bardo an experiment, one that he put off writing until he realised he wanted to do it for his own sake. Perhaps, at the end of the day, that is what writing is all about. We write to know ourselves, and that is something no literature prize may ever capture. But perhaps, just perhaps, they are beginning to learn how.

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