Have Literary Prizes Lost Their Meaning? (Have They Ever Had Any?)



Neither chapel nor cricket shows any meaningful sign of resurgence, but prize-giving—that other great hallmark of English boarding-school life—has in the past few decades zipped across the globe. As James English notes in his The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circulation of Cultural Value, the number of literary awards has more than doubled in the United Kingdom since 1988 and tripled in the United States between 1976 and 2000. More than 1,100 honors are distributed to American writers each year. Not only have prizes proliferated; the prestigious ones have grown more important as the midrange book market drops away. Our National Book Awards or Britain’s Man Booker might not make a best-seller. But they can transform a book that’s sold sluggishly into a popular and financial success.

As in the famous sausage-making paradigm, we are generally better off not knowing what went into the manufacture of a literary prize. But there is one major difference. Where sausage kings are unlikely to disparage the meat-grinding process, book people—the short-listed authors, the judges, even those who bag the big trophies—are the most likely to launch public critiques of the prize mill that serves them.

In Lost for Words, the British novelist Edward St. Aubyn takes his turn. The book is a romp about four authors vying for the Elysian Prize for literature and five judges deciding—though this is too purposeful a verb—who will win. The novel satirizes the Man Booker prize and the prize’s much-condemned 2011 jury, chaired by the retired spymaster (and spy novelist) Dame Stella Rimington, in particular. The debates that Rimington’s jury kicked up about the purpose of the Booker (is it to promote “readable” literary fiction? identify new talent? reward novels that “zip along,” as one judge, the Labour politician Chris Mullin, proclaimed? or thwart the London literati?) are all there. But they are borne along by a farcical plot that turns on swapped manuscripts, celebrity judges who don’t bother to read the entries, and an overriding concern for rewarding diversity. An Indian cookbook submitted for the prize by accident inexorably advances to the winner’s circle.

Lost for Words is an unexpected work for an author known for his mordantly dark, semiautobiographical series of five Patrick Melrose novels, a tour d’horizon through debauched precincts of the British aristocracy that begins with Never Mind (1992) and ends with At Last (2012). The Melrose novels encompass the rape of children, heroin addiction, disinheritance, and lots of sex, none of it marital. They brilliantly dissect families, intergenerational damage, and consciousness. Strange as it seems, they are also very funny.

Now St. Aubyn reverses the trick. Reaching for the broadest humor, satire bordering on slapstick, he ends up sour and predictable. In contention for the Elysian is an assemblage of cutout characters, led by the meritorious if somewhat metaphysically constipated Sam Black and his nymphomaniac fellow novelist and ladylove, Katherine Burns. Their supporting cast includes a French intellectual and a delusional Indian maharaja. When you hear "French intellectual," do you think pomposity and tedious over-theorizing? Must St. Aubyn’s princely Indian novelist be beached on a silk pillow, peevishly nursing a grudge against Anglo-Saxons? And why does every St. Aubyn femme fatale have long limbs and a tragic family history? What’s wrong with promiscuity unprompted by trauma?

Sam Black’s plaintive hope is that his “bildungsroman of impeccable anguish and undisguised autobiographical origin” will carry off the Elysian Prize, liberating him from the “tyranny of pain-based art.” But if Lost for Words is St. Aubyn’s paradise of the afterlife, it is a weirdly insubstantial deliverance. It’s as if he’s taken a big breath of helium and squeaked out an attempt at Monty Python.

St. Aubyn still whistles up some crystalline phrases. About the anorexic daughter of one Elysian judge: “A principled hunger strike, like Gandhi’s, which was aimed at achieving something in the outside world, looked very impure and compromised compared to a hunger strike whose sole object was to stop eating: this was the white on white of the hunger strike, the moment when it became abstract and transcended the clumsy literalness of merely representing one thing or another.” Or: “‘Lots of love’ between former lovers was of course less love than ‘love’ alone.” But there are plenty of thuds, too, like Katherine’s postcoital reveries: “Complacencies of the peignoir, or power shower: which word cluster would get her?”

St. Aubyn excels at depicting corrupt, dysfunctional families, so the corrupt, dysfunctional terrain of literary prize-making might not have seemed such a stretch. But the humor works differently. The feat in the Melrose novels, especially in the luminous Mother’s Milk (short-listed for the 2006 Man Booker) was to turn comedy into sympathy, even with some of the saga’s most distasteful characters. Shot through the Melrose novels was the humor, as Freud put it, “that smiles through tears.” In Lost for Words, St. Aubyn is having a hearty schoolboy chuckle.


Taking a jaundiced view of awards is nothing new. In the 1820s, Sir Walter Scott objected to the Royal Society of Literature’s proposed gold medal because he feared it would pervert the purity of the literary enterprise. Cultural prizes notoriously reward the wrong works for the wrong reasons: On the long list of worthies deprived of the Nobel for literature are Tolstoy, Proust, and Joyce. Every season is now the occasion for a slew of articles denouncing prizes as blessings for mediocrity or influence-peddling.

Still, prizes and their detractors need each other, as James English points out. For if prizes do the market’s bidding, their critics right the scales by extolling the nobility of art. John Updike confessed in 1964 that he felt “sort of uneasy” about literary prizes because the “wrong people tend to get them.” But his Who’s Who entry and book jackets cataloged a long list of honors.

Attacking prizes, then, isn’t a refusenik strategy but part of the cycle that feeds the phenomenon. St. Aubyn’s target—the Man Booker Prize, first awarded in 1969, 60-plus years after the Nobel and the Goncourt—exploited just this sort of scandal to blast past its competitors. When the Christian controversialist journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge resigned from his role as Booker judge in 1971 on the grounds that most of the entries were “mere pornography in the worst sense of the word,” the prize’s administrators sought to publicize the accusation. John Berger’s denunciation the following year of the prize’s sponsor, the agri-conglomerate Booker McConnell, as colonial exploiter similarly ensured headlines. Intrigued by the Booker’s quick rise, the director of the National Book Awards traveled to London to see what she could learn. Imitating the Booker, the Americans decided to announce a short list, a move that heightened suspense and helped to spark more hullabaloo.

Because the Booker is the most shamelessly splashy of prizes, it’s been the focus for much hand-wringing over the state of the literary market. Starting in the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands tuned in to watch live TV broadcasts of the ceremony, but were they seeking out new titles or waiting for a Salman Rushdie temper tantrum (the judges knew “fuck all” about literature)? The appointment of celebrity judges (in 2012, the actor Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame), the aura of compromised multiculturalism (as of this year, the prize is now open to novels written anywhere in the world in English, including the United States), the corruption of corporate sponsorship, the horse-trading behind the selection of judges and winners: If the Booker is now the world’s most glamorous literary prize, that’s because it has best ridden the waves of controversy.

St. Aubyn’s quarry is already quartered and dried, then. But while other novelists who have written about prizes (Martin Amis in The Information and Malcolm Bradbury—who twice judged the Booker—in Doctor Criminale) accept competition as a necessary evil, St. Aubyn ends on an idealistic note. He puts the moral of his story into the mouth of Mr. Wo, the Chinese businessman whose company has bought the Elysian Group. From his perch at the dark heart of capitalism, Mr. Wo understands the senselessness of competition in art, as opposed to sports or politics. So: Sam Black gets the honeypot Katherine but not the prize. Where Henry James advised the young writer to inscribe one word—“Loneliness”—upon his banner, Katherine chirps, “Let’s just make love and be happy.”

Without defending the invidiousness of competition, one is tempted to question whether novelists merit St. Aubyn’s special pleading. So long as artists put their work forward in search of praise (and the rewards that go with it), it’s perverse to exempt them from the competition that every other striver (whether plumber or software engineer) must endure. As for St. Aubyn, he well deserves the honors he’s already garnered. I wish, though, that he’d direct his talent once again to subjects for which discernment, not dismemberment, is the critical value. St. Aubyn’s a sword-juggler, but in Lost for Words, he’s making do with table knives.

This review will appear in the July/August issue of  The American Prospect magazine.

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