LITERARY PRIZES : BOOKS

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The dear, dependable Whitbread has already been dished out, but other prize panels are only just limbering up for the ordeal ahead. The Booker's backers face a ticklish task as they settle down to appoint this year's chairman. Last year's incumben t, John Bayley, embarrassed everyone by shooting his mouth off, booksellers bemoaning 1994's empty tills are still bitching about James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late, and anti-Bookerism is rife.

Anti-Booker prizes tend to be described, with a self-satisfied sneer, as awards for the readers. Witness W H Smith's Thumping Good Read, a curiously circular in-house promotion for the stuff that really shifts. More intriguing is the "Toff's Booker" initiative by the Duke of Devonshire and the Heywood Hill bookshop in Mayfair. His Whatsit puts up 10K, there's a bash at Chatsworth in June, and the judges are Heywood Hill's director John Saumarez Smith, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and the literary ed of the Spectator. The trio are not accepting submissions or nominations, and the award is for a lifetime's service to literature, thus sidestepping the Booker syndrome of right author, wrong book. "One of the people behind this new award was Lord Campbell, who unfortunately died on Boxing Day; he inaugurated the Booker Prize, when he was chairman of Booker. I think he became very disillusioned by it," says Saumarez Smith. He also feels a certain responsibility to his posh punters. "They're the sort of people who, if they were told to read James Kelman, would be very surprised. They'd say, I've spent £15 on this and I can't get through it," he goes on indignantly. Well, it probably isn't going to ruffle feathers, but this new venture does at least seem certainto avoid the patronising eeny-meeny-miny-mo-ism of the Booker (woman, Irishman, colonial...).

Many literary prizes (the Betty Trask, Somerset Maugham, Eric Gregory awards) are unashamedly ageist - you're past it at 35. Three cheers then for the new Age Concern Book of the Year Award, in memory of Lord Seebohm, chaired by his daughter Victoria Glendinning, and aiming to recognise "how books can promote the needs of older people". Especially those who write them.

8 Heywood Hill Bookshop, 10 Curzon St, London W1. 071 629 0647

Comments