Paul Bailey had an interesting comment in The Guardian on literary prizes. I have commented on lit prizes before, e.g. here, and make no bones about the fact that I have not been terribly whelmed by the choices of the various panels. Bailey mentions the James Tait Black Prize and the The Somerset Maugham Awards, both of which I was aware of but had not followed for some time. I have not read any of the three shortlisted for this year’s James Tait prize, though I might read the Ali Smith sometime. None of the Somerset Maugham prizes for last year was for fiction, though my significant other did read The Romantic Moderns and very much enjoyed it. However, as Bailey points out, these prizes get little publicity, so I wonder if they had any influence, which would, in my view, be their main purpose. Looking at the winners for the past ten years of the James Tait, surely Byatt, Barry, McCarthy, McEwen, Peace, Franzen, Zadie Smith and, possibly, O’Hagan don’t need the publicity, I have never heard of Soli or Sid Smith so that did not really work. Only the Belben is an interesting choice, as she is a writer who needs more publicity, including from me. He also mentions two prizes he judged – The Betty Trask and The McKitterick Prize, both administered by the Society of Authors. Again, I have to admit that I have not heard of any of the authors. This is a pity because some of them are probably very good but they do not get the publicity that the Man Booker gets.
Bailey goes on to criticise the Man Booker and he will get no arguments from me there except, as with the others, it is always good that lesser known books get the publicity.
I have only read two of last year’s longlist and do not anticipate reading many more of them but I was glad to have heard about Yvette Edwards‘ A Cupboard Full of Coats, a book which I may otherwise not have noticed and which I hope others also read. It is not a great book but it is certainly a well-written and interesting first novel. Bailey was a Man Booker judge in 1982 and complains of horse-trading and bargaining, to which I can only comment, why are you surprised? Surely, there has to be a certain amount of discussion and compromise among a group of judges with varying opinions, probably all reasonably valid?
All this is relevant because next week, the Man Booker long list will be announced. As always, Michael Orthofer at Literary Saloon is on top of it and, as always, I am not. I have read three of the possible candidates – The Chemistry of Tears (which I was not impressed with), Capital, which I was quite impressed with and Bring up the Bodies which I was very impressed with but surely it is someone else’s turn? I have also read Chinaman but it is not eligible as it was published last year in the UK. I looked at the Literary Saloon links and found quite a few books I had not heard of. Of the ones I had heard of, I will read the Pat Barker, Keith Ridgway and Ian McEwan when they come out and will probably read the Norfolk and Gunn but I did not see many others I would want to read and quite a few I know that I won’t want to read (no names mentioned, Martin Amis) though I would hope that there will be one or two of the ones I have not heard of that will prove interesting. But, overall, I cannot really get excited about this or other book prizes as the winner is unlikely to be one that I would have chosen. Still, if it introduces me – and the rest of the world – to some books that might otherwise have not got the publicity they deserved, it will have some worth. As long as they don’t give it to Lionel Asbo.