Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Lionel makes a Messy

I suspect only a prize-winning novelist who has sold over a million copies of her novel can really grouse about being awarded another literary prize. Anyone else would see it as an accomplishment, another bauble to place on the bookshelf; perhaps even wonder if there might be some cash attached to the prestige. Not Lionel Shriver – the most shrinking of literary violets – who has protested, or more precisely whinged, about being crowned the Orange/Waterstone’s Winner of Winners. To her it’s a “dumb” award – her choice of word interestingly juvenile and sulky – and one that dilutes the Orange prize’s standing.

Her reaction is at once blithely refreshing and stupendously foolhardy. Refreshing because Shriver seems utterly indifferent to the fact that this is a prize voted for by the general public; and foolhardy for precisely the same reason. Criticizing such an award these days is tantamount to punching a stoat live on television: you just don’t do it.

What you say is that the prize means more because the readers voted for it. What you don’t say is, however tangentially, that you preferred it when a collection of writers and journalists (and probably a token celebrity, thrown in so the literary media can get an erection) decided your book was worthy of merit. Shriver, whether intentionally or not, has questioned the orthodoxy of modern Britain: everyone’s opinion, no matter how ill-informed, is equally valid.

Where books are concerned this is something of an issue. As soon as you get the general public involved, you’re narrowing your field. Whereas the Booker judges are expected to wade through well over a hundred novels to get to their considered opinion, your voter for the Orange/Waterstone’s Winner of Winners can have read the blurb and decided from there. There is no rigour, no critical faculty necessary: you could even vote based solely on the fact that you like the name Lionel. You’re never asked why you voted for something, neither do you have to provide proof of having read it (If only all books ended like The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler!). But your opinion and vote is precisely weighted the same as someone who perhaps has read all 15.

Ever since Belle and Sebastian fans hijacked the Brit Awards by flooding in votes from their internet-enabled bedrooms, the notion of a public voted award has become circumspect. Award givers want to be inclusive, want to have the great unwashed on board, but have yet to find an adequate way to do this without running into either vote loading – as happened in the Not-Booker on the Guardian Blog last year – or over-zealous personality based campaigns.

Which leaves an industry, desperate to be inclusive, clutching at straws. The problem is that reading books takes time, and casual readers will always outnumber those who read widely and are willing to take chances on new authors, ignored writers and those that don’t trouble the bestseller lists. Which means the likes of Ian McEwan, Ishiguro and those other brand name literary institutions will always win by default in any kind of popularity contest. Ultimately, the reason for Shriver’s success in this competition has more to do with the fact that more people have read it than the others than it has because of its literary merit. Perhaps Shriver realises this.

To a greater or lesser extent, prizes are all about consensus – little more than posh bingo, as Julian Barnes had it – but asking people to vote based on having read just ten books in a year seems rather tough on the authors themselves. I think we have to remember that prizes provoke debate, make writers’ names and really give a media presence to an industry that struggles in the wake of television, music, film, and even art for publicity. The Booker, The Orange and The Costas always throw up fascinating curve ball titles, defy the odds by awarding the prize to outside bets and give literary fiction a lifeline. A public vote, even at shortlist stage, would probably never give the underdog its day in the sun. And had that been the case in 2005, there is little chance We Need to Talk About Kevin would have prevailed. Perhaps this is the real reason Shriver is so sceptical about this award – “dumb” or otherwise . . .