Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Manchester Literature Festival discussion on prize culture

Last night, Booker announcement night, Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester University's Centre for New Writing held a very interesting panel discussion on the subject of Prize Culture, chaired by journalist Michael Taylor, and presenting some very different angles on the subject.

Manchester University literature lecturer Jerome de Groot opened, making it clear that he was approaching the matter as an academic and was interested in (if my notes have it right)  'conceptualising what the Booker Prize has achieved.' He referred to Richard Todd's 1996 study of the Booker,  Consuming Fictions, which argues that the Booker and prize culture in general have created and sustained a market for literary fiction that it might otherwise not have received, that it has enfranchised audiences by taking judgement away from critics and academics and created a modern Booker canon. Though De Groot questioned this last point: how many people in the audience knew who won the first Booker in 1969? No one besides me put up their hand, and I only know because I've been thinking about these things and looking into them. (It was P H Newby for Something to Answer For - and no, I've not read it.) On the whole, though, De Groot was in agreement with Todd that prizes 'create a space for new negotiations of cultural worth'. He thought in addition that they give us an insight into publishing as an industry, allowing us to see the ways that cultural capital is peddled and the way books are sold to us. Above all, it allows us to reflect on what we have allowed publishing to become.

The other four panelists were writer-teachers in the Centre for New Writing, and next came poet Vona Groarke taking a poetry prize perspective. Having been a winner, loser (she said) and judge of poetry prizes, she gave us a blackly funny list of tips for winning which included 'Suffer bereavement or die,' 'If you're not suffering enough be young and beautiful,' and be politically aware but not so much as to frighten the horses. Next she gave us a breakdown of the typical judging panel which included: the villain, ie the panel member who hasn't read the books, usually a celeb; the hung jury which is so split that it's fundamentally incapable of functioning or results in a mediocre acceptable winner; the over-enthusiastic panel member who is incapable of making a detached decision; and the king maker who prizes youth and promise over achievement. This last she saw as a big problem: too many judges want to be in at the beginning of writers' careers; they want to feel that they have found someone. Mostly she felt that decisions end in compromise, and that in order to win, a collection has to be either outstandingly irreproachably wonderful or outstandingly irreproachably mediocre. On the whole, she thought it was astounding that prize juries ever get it right, and acknowledged that sometimes they do.

Novelist M J Hyland, speaking next, commented that Groarke was lucky, as a poet, to be able to speak her mind so freely, and that as a prize-winning novelist she felt less able. She read to us from John McGahern's essay on being shortlisted for the Booker in 1990 in which he relates that he found the razzamatazz far from enjoyable and comments that sometimes it takes years for the worth of a book to be seen, yet the judges need to make a decision in such a short time. My notes got a bit muddled here and I'm not sure whether the following experiences were those of McGahern, or of Hyland herself, both of whom have judged prizes, but I'll repeat them for their interest: no two judges on a panel having the same opinion, and at one stage all rejected books having been admired by someone on the panel while the winner limps into the shortlist unopposed but championed by no one.

Novelist Ian McGuire then spoke briefly but very thoughtfully about literary value judgements and where the power to make them lies now. Noting that lit crit is not a science, and that even in a good situation it's hard to make value judgements, he said that it's nevertheless not all just a matter of taste. However, the introduction of literary theory into Britain in the seventies, undermining the whole notion of literary value and hierarchy, had, he felt, diminished the ability of English Departments to take part in debates about value. Newspaper criticism has decreased, and the power of judgement has largely devolved to literary prizes and online commentators.

Poet John McAuliffe then laid roundly but with characteristic good humour into the Booker.  He recalled the Booker in what he called its heyday, mentioning among others Midnight's Children,  The God of Small Things and Vernon God Little, books which he said administered shocks to British literary culture. In recent years, though, he felt, Booker winners have been echoes, imitations of those earlier books rather than making new noises of their own. This year authors whose books could have administered such shocks - Patrick McGuinness, Dermot Healy, Kevin Barry - had been left off *, the last two even from the longlist, and the problem with them having been left off is that they have already more or less disappeared. Altogether, in his view, while British poetry prizes are closer to the pulse of the form, the Booker is now a publishers' prize for the Christmas market.

A few interesting points that came up in the following Q & A: Someone suggested that the sales of shortlisted books are not always good, but M J Hyland said that sales of her shortlisted book far outstrip that of her others, and keep doing so. In response to the idea that the best books stand the test of time and rise to the top anyway, she said that getting a prize is a great thing for an author, though, because authors need to eat and can very rarely make a living out of writing.  On the idea that many winners don't stand the test of time, Vona Groarke made the point that we can hardly expect them to: in fact, we would be very lucky to get a truly remarkable book each decade, leave alone each year.  Someone, Ian McGuire I think, commented that to invest in just two or three writers a year (which results from the prize culture) does not make for a healthy literature culture. Writers need to be given a chance to develop their careers, to produce non-prizewinning books at the start, and I think the implication was that a literary conversation dominated by prizes pushes publishers away from that. On the other hand (my notes tell me someone said), prizes could contribute to such a different kind of culture, but I don't recall anyone saying how. De Groot suggested that literary festivals bespeak a public desire to have the kind of conversation about books that was generally felt to be squeezed. Finally Festival Director Cathy Bolton asked what the panel felt about the online platform to which Ian McGuire saw that the literary discussion had moved. M J Hyland said she found it scary - she could be devastated by a bad Amazon review - but such democratisation and widening of the discussion had to be a good thing. Ian McGuire said that some of it was excellent, more objective than newspaper criticism which often consisted of writers reviewing each others' books, and one had to view it as part of the changing world of books.

* In an earlier published version of this post an elision of mine had Patrick McGuinness left off the longlist. Thanks to Dan Holloway for pointing out the error, which was mine and not John McAuliffe's, and apologies to John and the judging panel.


Kathleen Jones said...

Thanks for this summary - wasn't able to make the event. Sounds as if it was a fascinating discussion.

Dan Holloway said...

Wonderful, thank you. Just one correction, as I work in a very closely associated Faculty and spent a month with the news staring at me from my homepage I can assure everyone that Patrick McGuinnes did make this year's longlist.

Particularly interested in reading the wonderful account of poetry prizes. The event we held in Oxford on Tuesday was mainly full of poets. Incredibly vibrant, exciting poets. True many were young, but there was no death, little suffering, and what politics was on offer would scare the horses more than a Derek Jarman reimagining of Equus. Instead there was wonderfully informal sexuality (unhet-up accounts of casual first kisses), delicious Mieville-esque slightly-ideological magic realism, the internet, and that most shocking of subjects for poetry - happiness. There was much discussion afterwards (we talked over beer from 9 onwards with the staff of Blackwell's too busy chatting about literature to notice the Booker announcement had passed) about the state of poetry. It was most enlightening. We were a funny little group. Everyone bar me was totally enmeshed in the poetry & literary world, from the organiser of Oxford Hammer & Tongue to an Orange judge who's just started her own night of full-on poetry in London and a pukka prizewinner (£3000. For poetry!). The Poetry Society came up very briefly. Not everyone had heard of it. Those who had were vaguely aware that it was "a shambles". No one thought it, or any of the prizes under its auspices, had any particular relevance to anything exciting that was happening in poetry, and the conversation moved swiftly on to incredibly fertile and creative and genuinely exciting ground as we talked about how poetry could engage audiences, how to overcome the superficiality of and staleness of much spoken poetry, why there were so few women at the pinnacle of performance poetry, and plans for getting people from different disciplines workshopping their work together to keep each discipline fresh and avoid introspection.

I have a feeling it's the same in all literary areas. It's rather like our planet. There's 99.9% seething molten shifting core, but the bit you can actually see just sits there bar the occasional tectonic wobble. But the prizes that people see all have to do with the latter. Whcih further reinforces things. It's a very hard feedback loop for readers and writers to get out of.

Interesting to talk of the Booker's heyday. I was going to say it's a shame there was no mention of the Turner Prize, which still has the power to stir the pot. But I'm not sure it does. Damien Hirst, Steve McQueen, Rachel Whiteread, Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry. They all belong to pretty much the same time period as the Booker heyday. And one could say the same about music. Which makes me wonder about a much larger cultural shift towards the grassroots, towards live performance and direct engagement with audiences. A shift that prizes are now way out of sync with

Elizabeth Baines said...

Dan, thanks so much for pointing out the error: it wasn't John's error but mine.

The poetry evening sounds wonderful. So very interested to hear that the Poetry Society etc figured so little in the general conciousness there.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Kathleen: Very sorry I had to miss your event yesterday - would have loved to be there and I hope it went well.

Group 8 said...

Wow, it sounds like a great discussion. Thanks for taking the time to share it, ELizabeth.

I love a bit of honesty on a panel. No better woman than Vona G: 'the king maker ... prizes youth and promise over achievement. This last she saw as a big problem: too many judges want to be in at the beginning of writers' careers; they want to feel that they have found someone.' So true - I have seen evidence of this and it can stink.

MJ has a point too re. the difficulties in being truly honest about the literary world when you are IN it.

John McAuliffe championing the Irish. Neither of the books he mentioned garnered consistently 'wow' reviews and, it seems to me, books get on shortlists because of wow reviews.