Boyd Tonkin: The real prize would be lifting the literary world's curse

Awards cultivate a corner of meritocracy in an industry that looks increasingly like a clumsy plutocracy

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How do you discredit the literary prize business? It's not enough merely to overload the crowded calendar for bookish gongs with extra events, as a few critics claim in response to the foundation of a new Orange Award for New Writers. No: last week's tinsel-flecked British Book Awards gave us a masterclass in making a mockery of the whole notion of literary judgement. The WH Smith-sponsored Book of the Year was Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, no doubt because that semi-literate heap of dreck has done such sterling service - to the wads of sterling in British bookshop tills.

How do you discredit the literary prize business? It's not enough merely to overload the crowded calendar for bookish gongs with extra events, as a few critics claim in response to the foundation of a new Orange Award for New Writers. No: last week's tinsel-flecked British Book Awards gave us a masterclass in making a mockery of the whole notion of literary judgement. The WH Smith-sponsored Book of the Year was Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, no doubt because that semi-literate heap of dreck has done such sterling service - to the wads of sterling in British bookshop tills.

It certainly opens up an entirely fresh front in the prize wars to reward the sheer accumulation of cash in utter defiance of quality and value. After Dan Brown's triumph, we should look forward eagerly to Richard Branson snaffling a lifetime achievement honour for rail punctuality while the award for Britain's finest restaurant goes to the takeaway pizza counter at Tesco.

British authors can now compete for 300-odd prizes, great and small. Many are defiantly local and specialised, from the Lakeland Book of the Year Award and the Westminster Medal for Military Literature (sponsored by the Duke, not the City) to my favourite minnow, the Biennial Sasakawa Prize for contributions to the art of the haiku. At least the judging for that can't take too long, unless the panel takes a break for Zen meditation. At the other extreme, behemoths such as the Man Booker, Whitbread and Orange command the media gaze and help to make the nation's cultural weather.

So ask not whether they are (like Jude the Obscure's doomed children) too many. Ask instead whether each prize aims at a clearly defined target, hits it with integrity and efficiency, and in doing so boosts the fortunes both of its laureates and the sector of the market that it serves. We may not need fewer prizes, but we probably need smarter and more sharply focused prizes.

Some of my best experiences as a prize judge have come with (in media terms) the little leagues of literature: with the Conference rather than the Premiership contests. For example, the Society of Authors runs one award for a first novelist over the age of 40, and another for fictional debutants over 60. Judging the McKitterick and Sagittarius prizes opened my eyes and changed my mind, proving that a talent for fiction can find its true voice at any age. It introduced me to writers of the calibre as David Crackanthorpe, a former lawyer who in his seventies began producing stylish historical thrillers up to Harris or Le Carré standards. It also showed that several debut novelists hyped by their publishers as hip trend-setters were, in fact, eligible for the over-forties category. Long live Middle Youth!

Here is where I should declare an interest. Later this week, the winner of the annual Independent Foreign Fiction Prize will be announced. No other British honour gives translated fiction from every language the chance to compete for a general award. No other honour splits its prize pot fifty-fifty between writer and translator (each receives £5,000). And no other honour does more to encourage notoriously Anglocentric UK publishers that they should open their doors to global fiction by investing in translation.

That seemingly risky investment can pay vast dividends in commercial as well as cultural terms, as the mega-selling success of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind has shown over the past six months.

Neither does the shortage of front-page UK publicity for prizes in some way render them invalid. That is what the Man Booker's veteran administrator, Martyn Goff, bizarrely now seems to believe. But rewards for books written in the world's dominant language can and should resonate far beyond the London media.

As an adviser for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (which is a model of complex multi-national administration, by the way), I have been struck by the gap between its relative obscurity at home and its glamour and glory abroad. In Colombo and Calcutta, I have faced press conferences as crammed and contentious as a UK soccer manager's farewell rant might be. To Goff, the big news in books evidently only happens in Mayfair and Soho. There is, thank goodness, a world of writers and readers elsewhere.

Today's publishing and retail climate relentlessly promotes a few favoured blockbusters at the expense of many better but quieter books. So prizes can also promise a little more of the serious attention that, otherwise, only a huge marketing budget might buy. At their best, they cultivate a corner of meritocracy in an industry that increasingly looks like a clumsy plutocracy.

The novelist Andrea Levy was facing the all-too-common danger of mid-career rejection when she published her fourth book last year: the London migrant saga, Small Island. Since then the novel has collected the Orange Prize, the Whitbread Book of the Year award and the overall Commonwealth Writers Prize, while selling in its hundreds of thousands of copies. This was an overwhelming vindication of a gifted author who had not always looked like the apple of her publisher's eye.

The book trade now labours under the curse of Epos: the electronic point-of-sale information that gives to publishing bean-counters the numbers to crunch while deciding the fate of their authors. Well-managed prizes, of whatever kind, can help to lift that curse.

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