We need to talk about 'dumb' literary awards

Prize-winning author Lionel Shriver hits out at publishers and says latest accolade is a waste
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The Independent Culture

When Lionel Shriver won the Orange Prize for Fiction, she thanked organisers unreservedly for the recognition that had eluded her for decades; she had written seven unsuccessful novels and her eighth had been rejected by 30 publishers before becoming a word-of-mouth hit.

Nowadays, her relationship to the prize is far more critical. Having scooped the main prize in 2005 for her novel about reluctant motherhood, We Need To Talk About Kevin, she has today won another accolade for the same book by being voted by the public as their favourite Waterstones/Orange "winner of winners" over the past 15 years. But, rather than gushing forth thanks, she complained that the multiple nature of the Orange Prize was "dumb" and diluted the impact of winning.

Speaking to The Independent about the shortcomings of the publishing industry and multiple prizes by the same organisers, she said: "I'm critical of the Orange people on this front. The more prizes you give, the more meaningless they become. It's a stupid thing to have more than one winner; it's diluting and it means nobody wins."

To mark the 15th anniversary of the Orange Prize, a youth panel picked Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces as its favourite winner. This year's Orange Prize for Fiction and Award for New Writers winners are announced tonight.

Shriver also fired a broadside against the publishing industry, saying she was "torn" about recommending writing as a career to aspiring novelists.

"I'm very sympathetic to aspirant writers. It's very difficult and there are no guarantees that cream will ever rise to the top," she said.

"It'd be totally hypocritical to discourage people from joining my profession, which was good to me in the end, but I have qualms about being encouraging. The odds are stacked against you. I want to give people enough of an idea of the capriciousness of the industry."

She went on to cast aspersions on the successes of some best-selling authors whose writing was simply not very good, she thought, but whose books were aided by the benefit of the powerful publishing publicity machine – citing Bret Easton Ellis' latest book, Imperial Bedrooms, as one such example.

"There are a lot of books that end up selling that aren't very good. I've just read Bret Easton Ellis' new book and it's awful but it's had a big publicity campaign.

"I'm writing a 1,500 word review of it – the size of which alone will overwhelm what I say. It's not a case of cream rising to the top but skimmed milk rising – of the 'no fat' kind. The book doesn't deserve the attention. It's ghastly. In the meantime, there are lots of books that will not be reviewed," she said.

Shriver's Orange Prize-winning novel has gone on to sell over 600,000 copies in Britain since publication and is currently being adapted as a film starring Tilda Swinton.

The book dramatises a Columbine-style high-school massacre committed by a delinquent son who kills his classmates and teacher with a crossbow. It is told through a series of letters written by his mother, Eva Khatchadourian, a New York career woman and reluctant parent whose relationship with her son is strained when she does not experience a rush of unconditional love for him after his birth.

Reflecting back to the initial success of the book, Shriver said: "I had made no money and I was a publishing pariah. I had no clout. The book came within a whisker of not being published. My former agent hated it and suggested I rewrite it as a comedy or without the school massacre."

Kate Mosse, co-founder of the Orange Prize, whose previous winners include Zadie Smith and Rose Tremain, said the reason there were a number of regular and one-off awards was to support women writers "in all stages of their careers".