Arifa Akbar: Is the world of book prizes a little too cosy?

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It was clear from Daisy Goodwin's joke this week when she referred to herself as "more of a chaise longue than a chair" of the Orange Prize, that she was attempting to bring some levity to the job, or perhaps divest the role of its usual pomposity.

She was the laid back outsider, she suggested, who, perhaps, has the advantage of viewing the literary scene with an outsider's clarity of vision. What she says she saw was an incestuous world seething with just as much ambitions and competitive rivalries as her own media scene (although, in fairness, she says poets, not novelists, are "the bitchiest").

Her view on book prize panels is that there needs to be an open-doored system in which jurors are mined from other worlds, rather than from within the constipated bowels of the industry. If the usual suspects were always sitting on prize panels, she argues, the agenda for selection will be stale and morally compromised.

"If it's the usual suspects, they tend to know the novelists, the editors and the publishers; they remember which (shortlisted candidates) reviewed them badly, which snubbed them at a party. Once all that comes into play, it becomes very difficult. I've judged lots of TV prizes including the BAFTA's and if you are in the world, it's very hard not to let professional and personal things come into play."

Goodwin re-opens a debate on what critea a book prize committee applies to picking its judges, and what criteria in turn those judges apply to picking their winner. Her words chime with those of Louise Doughty, the author who while serving as a Booker prize judge in 2008, voluably railed against the stagnant pool of male academic judges who appeared to have as keen an eye on their reputations for picking a "highbrow" author as they did on picking a worthy winner. Both women's comments seem fair, but one wonders if there is ever a jury that can be completely neutral, especially if it is comprised of insiders. And are insiders really the best judges after all?

Ion Trewin, literary director of the Man Booker prize, argues that there is no getting away from some degree of incestuousness, as long as all consenting adults are open about their possible conflict of interests, be it involving frienships with shortlisted authors, or aversions to them: "The nature of our business is that everybody knows everybody. There are situations in which a novelist sitting on a panel has a publisher, and three of that publisher's books are up for the prize.

"I say to the novelist 'is this something you find difficult?' If they say yes, I say they shouldn't be on a judge. If you have someone saying that they go to dinner with Ian McEwan two or three times a year, and he appears on the Man Booker list that year, you think Ian McEwan probably socialises with an awful lot of people."

The only way round the circular nature of prize judging, he reflects, is to chose panellists from completely different worlds – " and we have seen the trouble with celebrity judges with Lily Allen dropping out of the Orange prize jury (in 2008) weeks before the end."

He makes a good point - rather than looking for that elusive 'neutral jury' it is perhaps more grown-up to understand that people might have vested interests but hopefully they'll owe up to them, through their genuine sense of fair play. Yet it is still a slightly discomforting idea.

Goodwin would also like to see more genuine 'readers' on panels. Perhaps industry insiders pick very different shortlists to industry outsiders but who says the former category's choices are any better? That's what Kate Mosse, founder of the Orange prize, asks, at least.

Mosse, who now sits on the prizes advisory committee, says she never wanted to set up a book award that resembled horse-trading, in which "you were having a judgement of peers by peers." "When we set up the prize we talked to an awful lot of people who had served on panels, who said they had a different experience with us; it was about books they loved rather than horse-trading. They were not choosing books they thought they ought to, which no-one really cared about. They were choosing books they loved reading."

The prize appears to have sprinked their judging panels with celebrity stardust in recent times. She insists there's nothing wrong in 'celebrity jurors' if they are also voracious readers, as it results in raising the profile of books, and reading, in general. The supermodel, Sophie Dahl, served as an Orange prize judge in 2003 before her writing career took off; Suzanne Vega came before her in 2001; the dot.com whizz, Martha Lane Fox, judged last year and most controversially, Lily Allen was picked in 2008 (although she dropped out). Allen's celebrity stirred the most censure in book circles; some saw the criticism as a reflection of literary snobbery, other said it was indicative of dumbing down. Mosse saw it as an opportunity to attract younger readers. "I was very disappointed by the reaction to this because the book trade was going through a difficult time. There are all sorts of issues about selling books and everyone was looking for the next best thing. We felt this was a really big thing, to see if a young, high achieving judge would make a difference in attracting younger readers to high quality fiction."

Goodwin certainly argues that a panel comprised of such "celebrities" is more desirable than a bunch of navel gazing insiders, "as long as they read the book 'til the end."

Maybe the difference in all of this comes down to what we regard to be the purpose of literary prizes – the recognition of a book that people love reading, or a book that is deemed an Important Read. Mosse says that a current Orange prize judge, Dame Julia Neuberger, a former Booker judge, told her that the atmosphere in the two judging rooms was utterly different. "She said people on the Orange Prize were saying 'I really love this book', not 'I think this is a really important book'," reports Mosse.

Yet, even when juries are configured with very different ends in mind, they often lead to the same end. The Orange Prize has produced some very 'high end' winners – Rose Tremain and Marilynne Robinson to name two - and the Booker, some populist ones. Hilary Mantel, last year's Booker winner, was selected this week for the Orange shortlist.

P.S.

The mystery identity of 'orlando-birkbeck' may have been solved, but a central question remains. Why did Stephanie Palmer, a barrister, Cambridge academic and wife of the historian, Professor Orlando Figes, write her 'colourful' Amazon reviews under the pseudonym 'historian'? The Independent first revealed this curious development in the story last Saturday, after being contacted by Professor Figes' lawyer, shortly before midnight on Friday, who told us that the professor had just discovered the identity of the anonymous reviewer. When Ms Palmer came to the phone to confirm this to me, her voice sounded awkward, distant and shaky, even more so when I asked: "Why?" There was an almost surprised pause and a lack of a coherent explanation before the lawyer intervened. A week later, the question remains.

a.akbar@independent.co.uk

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