Monday, May 07, 2007

Robert McCrum Shifts his View

In response to the flurry of literary prizes (including, incredibly, three new ones for short stories, the National, the Frank O'Connor, and the Edge Hill), Robert McCrum muses interestingly on their role.

In [the contemporary] blizzard of commentary, from the blogosphere to talk radio, he says, newspaper review pages are no longer the 'ultimate gatekeepers' of literary taste, and, while admitting to having had his own merry digs at lit prizes in the past, he says that now the time has come to acknowledge the role [literary prizes] play in shaping public taste.

For those to whom this will come as heresy, he asks (with a searing frankness which is one of the best comments on last autumn's newspaper/blog review debate):

How much more reliable are reviews? Would you rather submit your first novel to a clique of well-lunched literati in a Soho meeting room than a (probably) failed novelist writing late in his/her dressing gown somewhere in the purlieus of Dollis Hill? Are the deliberations of a prize jury any less contingent than the speculations of a literary editor and his/her reviewers?

The literary prize has many well-rehearsed drawbacks, but it has one great virtue: it is conducted in public and is answerable to scrutiny. To some, that just leads to another disqualification (timid juries, they say, simply confirm the conventional wisdom). But it does not have to be so.

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