Thursday, August 23, 2012

Entertainment culture

At the moment I'm in wild Wales from where the British literary (for want of a better word) scene is looking progressively bizarre and reminiscent of a hall of mirrors. On the one hand we have a panel of Booker judges being avowedly 'literary', passing over names and reputations and concentrating on the books (hooray) (though meanwhile Irvine Welsh at the Edinburgh Book Festival disses the Booker as middle class and colonial), and on the other, the Guardian's Not the Booker, originally set up to challenge, one would have assumed, the very tendencies this year's Booker panel are eschewing, conducting what seems basically a popularity vote, with those authors possessing the gall to rally their mates to vote most likely to end up on the shortlist and those without pretty much guaranteed not to, irrespective of books' merits. (The shortlist turns out to be entirely male: go figure.)


How many people who voted on the Not the Booker had read all of the books on the longlist in the short time time available? How can any vote made without doing so be considered authoritative, and how can any competition run in such a way be considered serious? Ah well, I've read tweets suggesting that we shouldn't  be taking it seriously. It's just a bit of fun, and it gives some books exposure and that's a good thing isn't it? Who cares about the ones who don't get exposure (however good they may be?) Never mind the quality, feel the hype... The trouble is, though, people do take the results of such competitions seriously, and they do have a serious effect on literature and literary production.

And then we come to the new Costa short story competition, in which, it turns out, the shortlist chosen by the judges will be put to public vote. How is an author to decide what to send to such a competition? Once upon a time you simply chose one of your best, most ambitious stories, suiting it perhaps to what you knew of the judges' literary tastes, confident that the criteria would at least be literary. Now you have to consider sending a crowd-pleasing story. But what will make a crowd-pleasing story? One suspects something pretty simple and traditional, or maybe sensationalist. But what kind of demographic is likely to vote? What kind of demographic will the Costa be encouraging to vote? And will they get it right? And how far will the sifters and then the judges have that demographic in mind when they choose? It seems impossible to second-guess all these things. Perhaps then, you may as well just send your best story and hope for the best, in which case the whole thing is more than usually just a lottery. But ah, isn't that what it's all about now, isn't that what we want? An entertainment, lottery culture...

10 comments:

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, I'm totally befuzzled by what to enter for the Costa with what feels like a wholly different type of story likely to get onto the short list from the one likely to be chosen from it. It'll certainly be interesting to see how it progresses, but I fear we'll see a lot of beautifully written stories with beginnings, middles, ends, a revealed secret from the past, no more than one gently humorous tale, and a focus on times of life that are germane both to change and to reflective parallels with a point in the past, quite possibly the point containing the secret. In other words, a celebration of "good writing", the bane of culture everywhere.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, that's a crucial point. Whether the same or different criteria will be used at different stages.

Hayley N. Jones said...

Unfortunately, I believe that literary prizes where entries are judged and/or nominated by the general public will be won by bland, generic, predictable literature. Maybe a few surprises will slip past - just as some good books make it onto bestseller lists occasionally - but anything challenging and original will probably not be popular enough to be selected.

Tania Hershman said...

Elizabeth, it's great that you brought this up and are airing it. I was just wondering what to send in for the Costa prize, I hadn't known about the public vote aspect, and I think because of that I won't bother entering. Partly because, as you say, who knows how to please a crowd and it will probably be something quite traditional (who knows what the organisers will want to convey in this first competition?). But also because even I was lucky enough to be shortlisted, I can see that kind of process - having to rally as many "friends" as possible etc... - being incredibly stressful. I think I'd rather not. What a silly system. Thanks for letting me cross another competition off my list. What does "judge" mean in competitions like this? Hmmm.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Picking up T's point about stress -

I thanked my lucky stars that I went on a poetry course, right in the middle of the furore about 'who has the most mates' whipped up by the Not the Booker.

It was brilliant to have a book nominated, and yes, I sent the link to some people, and tweeted about it, and facebooked the event. But it began to feel bad, asking people to 'vote', when voting assumes you have read the lot, and are making a value judgement. So being a natural killjoy, I asked people to vote for the best book... nuts, really.

Then I ran to Wales!

I take my hat off to those who had the balls to carry on and push their mates to vote, though. And I will be shamelessly voting for Stephen May's Life! Death! Prizes! in the final round.

well, if you cant beat em join em.

But it was stressful, I can't deny that - it hung over me at the poetry course, and occasional emails pinging through on my phone "You're nowhere near - can you muster 30or 40 people?" didn't help! .

We all could do with good exposure for our books, as budgets at publishers mean you get a small publicity window and that's that... after that your book sinks or swims on its own. I'd have loved to get TCT on the shortlist, for the exposure alone - but the hoops you have to leap through have nothing whatsoever to do with the book. It is a test of your mate-rating. And I obviously fail dismally! :))

Elizabeth Baines said...

V, I noticed that you did that: asked people to vote on the list rather than just for your own book, and saw it as a mark of your integrity. congratulations for being on the long list.

Sue Guiney said...

I'm so glad I was out of the country for all this hoopla. It completely drives me nuts, and really does undercut whatever self-esteem I've developed over the years. But maybe all this will hasten the day when all these competitions get canned and we can just feel good about reading and writing what we want...well, a girl can dream, can't she? :-)

charlescharliecharles said...

it could be argued that the role of literary prizes is to help publicise more marginal texts. that way they would benefit ambitious authors who want to do something different with the form of the novel or short story and enrich the culture as these developments are digested and then either subverted or distorted by other writers.
but i don't think it is. i think most of them - particularly those attracting big sponsorship money - exist to feed the commercial fiction machine. and if this is their role, it surely makes sense to have them judged by 'readers' rather than pesky 'experts'.

there are interesting awards out there. the Salt Prizes, for example or the new Words With Jam prizes, both of which are judged this year by people with a track record in producing interesting stuff. but we shouldn't confuse the two, something that The Literature Prize appears to have done...

i also think that the Guardian's NTB is a different case again. and while its original aims were laudable, the organisation of the thing has turned it into a farce...

charlescharliecharles said...

(sorry about the terrible mix of tenses in the first sentence of this post by the way... i was trying to knock it out quickly at work...)

The Willoughby Book Club said...

A very intresting article - thank you. It'll be interesting to see how the general public approach the Costa prize. I can't help but think it'll boil down to frantic campaigning and marketing in a bid to cross the finish line first...