The Blagger's Guide To: Literature prizes
A recognition of excellence or a ticket to a funeral?
Saturday 09 March 2013
At last, full details will be announced on Wednesday of the new Literature Prize, which was first announced in October 2011. The prize was founded by the literary agent Andrew Kidd, and backed by a library of well-known authors – including Pat Barker and Jackie Kay. It was immediately taken as a snub to the Man Booker Prize, whose chair of judges, Dame Stella Rimington, had announced that they were looking for "readability". The author David Mitchell gave his support, saying: "It's undeniable that in recent years the Booker shortlist has emphasised accessibility over artistry ... But anglophone culture also needs an arena where the adjective 'challenging' isn't a dirty word, and I'm supporting the Literature Prize because it promises to create such an arena." Late last year, the Prize found a sponsor for a £40,000 annual prize, and on Wednesday it will finally be revealed who it is. The prize will be for "a work of fiction written in the English language and published in the UK in a given year. There will be no restriction on a writer's country of origin, nor on the genre of the works considered. The sole criterion will be excellence."
Other literary prizes include: The Bad Sex in Fiction prize; The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize; the Diagram Prize, for the oddest title of the year; and the Ig Nobel Prize for literature, which last year was awarded to the US Government General Accountability Office, for "a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports". The Harvard University-based prize, founded in 1991, recognises research that "first makes people laugh, then makes people think".
The Nobel Prize for Literature, first awarded in 1901, is the richest book prize in the world, worth eight million Swedish krona (£839,360). But not everybody is pleased to receive it. TS Eliot, who won in 1948, said: "The Nobel is a ticket to one's own funeral. No one has ever done anything after he got it." At 87, Doris Lessing was the prize's oldest winner and only the 11th female winner when it was awarded to her in 2007. She learned the news from reporters who had gathered outside her house while she was out grocery shopping, and her first reaction was: "Oh, Christ!" When she had time to take it in, she told them: "I've won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I'm delighted to win them all. It's a royal flush." However, only a year later, she said that winning the prize had been a "bloody disaster". "All I do is give interviews and spend time being photographed. [My writing] has stopped, I don't have any energy any more."
"I would not employ an author to referee a ping-pong match," said the Canadian publisher Jack McClelland in 1981. "By their very nature they are biased and bloody-minded. Better put a fox in a henhouse than to ask an author to judge his peers."
Husband and wife Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin have twice been nominated for the same prize. Last year they were both successful at the South Bank Sky Arts awards: he won the Lifetime Outstanding Achievement award and she took home the literature prize for her book Charles Dickens: A Life. It was a bit trickier in 2003 when they were both shortlisted for the Whitbread Book of the Year, after he won the best novel prize for Spies and she the best biography category for Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. When Tomalin won, Frayn was full of praise for the decision, but did admit: "It's a great social difficulty with our friends."
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