Photographs of the Irish author Sebastian Barry on Tuesday night, clutching his prize-winning book The Secret Scripture after winning the £25,000 Costa Book of the Year, showed a man not so much triumphant as crestfallen. It's not surprising, given the remarks of the chair of judges, Matthew Parris.
Like God, Mr Parris giveth and he taketh away. He announced that Barry had won. He said the final choice had been very close. Then he blundered on: "The feeling among judges was that there was a lot wrong with [Barry's book]. It was flawed in many ways, almost no one liked its ending. For some, this was fatal. I don't think the ending works, nobody thought the ending worked. But there was a feeling among the judges that a great many works of literature are also flawed."
Parris conjures up a bewildering picture of the Costa's querulous, nine-strong judging team coming to blows in a committee room at Costa HQ. You picture these mild men and women becoming red-faced and shaking furious fists at Barry's tissue of shortcomings. "Almost no-one liked [the] ending," said Parris. "For some, this was fatal."
You mean some people hated the conclusion so much, they actually expired on the carpet? Jeez. Had they been drinking? The judges' conclusion that "a great many works of literature are also flawed" has the slurry, condescending generosity ("We musht try to be charitable...") you associate with weary benefactors who've stayed too late in a gentlemen's club. You also despair of the quality of judges who can reach such footling, middlebrow judgements as that one.
Mr Parris seemed to have forgotten a cardinal rule of prize-givings: that the winner is there to be praised for being the best, rather than criticised for not being better. The chair's job, as a kind of secular high priest of the bookish mysteries, is to dwell on the virtues of the best, not voice misgivings about them. A book prize is, by its nature, celebratory: its declared winner is, if temporarily, a literary hero or heroine, to be greeted by applause, kisses, flashing lights and large cheques. There's nothing celebratory about telling the joyful crowd that the prize has gone to the best of a lousy bunch.
In a culture which has become obsessed with the passing of disobliging judgements (step forward Simon Cowell) we should allow ourselves the luxury of letting winners be winners. We should give ourselves a holiday from fault-finding, carping and nitpicking. When winners of the gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals take their places on the podia, and the national anthems play, nobody comes on camera to say that, actually, the gold medallist's final sprint was rubbish. When confronted by the sight of Matisse's matchless "The Dancer", we do not point out that the chap on the right seems to be out of step.
I've just been judging a major literary prize and, although discussions became heated and I didn't vote for the eventual winner, I think it unlikely that I'll bound up at the prizegiving and tell him (or her) "Congratulations – but you ought to know we all thought your early stuff was rubbish."
We should be generous enough to stifle our critical niggles and praise a democratic decision that conveys distinction on an artist and brings pleasure to his audience. As my Maths teacher used to say: "Just the answer will do. There is no need to show working."Reuse content