What Does It Take To Win A Literary Prize?: 250 Book Prizes - and still counting
Saturday 03 April 1999
It will be listed and described in the Book Trust Guide to Literary Prizes. There are now so many book prizes - 250 at the last count and rising - that there has to be a book to help the uninitiated to find their way around them.
The initiated, of course, know all about them. Properly plugged in and with the right connections, a bibliophile who manages to attend most of the prize ceremonies should not have to cook dinner for most of the year.
And for authors, and increasingly judges, there are weekly opportunities for fame. A headline-grabbing judge is now almost vital for a prize to rise above the pack. Among the judges for the Samuel Johnson Prize will be Cherie Booth, wife of the Prime Minister and a notable barrister, though not as yet an authority on English literature.
The Samuel Johnson Prize has been set up by an anonymous patron. This must certainly be an indication of their familiarity with the writings of Samuel Johnson, who described a patron as "commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery".
The creation of the Samuel Johnson Prize tells us something else about book prizes. It replaces the NCR award for non-fiction - a prize that came into disrepute after its panel of television celebrity judges admitted they had only read summaries of the books on the shortlist. A conscientious judge for the Samuel Johnson award will have to work their way through a year's worth of non-fiction books in about six weeks.
Book prizes can be confusing for judges, authors and even the prize-givers. Beryl Bainbridge - who won the pounds 10,000 WH Smith award after missing out on both the Booker and the Whitbread - says rather disconcertingly: "I'm not sure that literary prizes help literacy. I think that in Dickens' time, 10 per cent of people read books. I don't think actually that it's gone up very much."
WH Smith itself doesn't seem to be convinced that its annual award winner is necessarily the best read of the year, for the company also runs an alternative prize: "The Thumping Good Read."
A WH Smith spokesman said the winner of this pounds 5,000 award had to be "an accessible and page-turning good read". Quite how Beryl Bainbridge's latest offering, Master Georgie, differs from this description is unclear. And why is a thumping good read worth just half the prize-money of a literary award winner?
As it happens, a thumping good read is far too predictable a criterion for many of the book prizes currently on offer. What about those dedicated people who compile the indexes? Fear not; they are rewarded with the annual Wheatley Medal for "an outstanding index". The current holder, as students of indexes will know, is Jan Ross for the index to Rheumatology, Second Edition.
Mountaineers must feel gratuitously excluded from the annual literary shindigs as they have their own prize: the pounds 2,000 Boardman Tasker Award for an "outstanding contribution to mountain literature".
Then there are prizes that cunningly cut down the cost of administration by making rules that limit the number of entrants. The Teixiera-Gomez Prize is awarded to the best translation of a Portuguese work written by a Portuguese national - but entries must have been published in the UK.
There are other furtive ways to win a literary prize. If you don't feel you are going to get the Booker or Whitbread, set a page of your novel in Lancashire and it is then eligible for the pounds 2,500 Portico Prize, awarded to a book "set wholly or partly in the North-west of England".
Even that seems generously wide ranging, however, compared with the pounds 5,000 Lichfield Prize, awarded to an unpublished work "set in the Lichfield district".
Most Prolific Winner
Claudia Roden: "The Book of Jewish Food"
Glenfiddich Food and Drink Awards; Guild of Food Writers Awards; Jewish Quarterly Literary Prizes; Andre Simon Memorial Fund Awards.
"Roden... brings gefilte fish to the gentile kitchen and latke takeaways to the high street" - Stanley Price, The Times
Most Embarrassed Winner
Sebastian Faulks: "Charlotte Gray"
The Literary Review Award for Bad Sex in Fiction
"Her ears were filled with the sound of a soft but frantic gasping and it was some time before she identified it as her own"
"This is so wonderful I feel I might disintegrate, I might break into a million fragments"
Winner of winners
Salman Rushdie: "Midnight's Children"
"...one of the very best of our post-postwar novels, a capacious, amazingly inventive work that opened fiction out to new forms of narrative, new sounds and voices ... a masterwork of its generation" - Malcolm Bradbury, judge of the Booker of Bookers
Most Bizarre Title
"Developments In Dairy Cow Breeding and Management And New Opportunities To Widen The Use Of Straw" Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust
Diagram Group prize in the Bookseller magazine awards winning a bottle of champagne. Previous entrants include: "The Joy Of Sex: Pocket Edition"
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