Michael Holroyd: Bad behaviour may not be the way to promote literary prizes

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This is the sixth Ondaatje Prize dinner, a unique prize named after the great patron of the arts Sir Christopher Ondaatje and dedicated to the spirit of place in fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

It has gained a high reputation in the calendar of writers during these years – if not quite gaining the media coverage which the Booker Prize attracts.

As a past member of the Booker Prize advisory committee for eight or nine early years, I have been able to give a few tips to Sir Christopher as to how we might win this extra attention.

If, for example, we could somehow arrange for the winner to announce that he or she would be handing over the prize money to, shall we say, the British National Party or President Mugabe – preferably doubling it from his or her own pocket on the way – and if this immediately provoked a tremendous rumpus here at the Travellers Club then we might get somewhere.

Looking round I see we have invited some very active and opinionated guests – distinguished figures all of you – so I'm sure I can rely on you to damage some of the furniture and make a number of citizens' arrests. If we can stage all this then we might indeed get noticed more lavishly in the media – as the Booker itself did in its early revolutionary days with John Berger and Jim Farrell.

But this prize has one severe disadvantage: we award the prize in a few minutes, so in creating our newsworthy chaos we would risk missing our excellent dinner unlike Booker authors who sit in ignorance and anxiety throughout their long evening. We are more kindly and humane, I like to think, and as a result our reputation is spreading more gently.

I should warn Christopher Ondaatje that it is my ambition to arrange a secure future for this distinguished prize before I retire as president of the Royal Society of Literature this coming winter. But I believe he already suspects I will be suggesting some generous new investment in it and is well-disposed to this idea – within reason.

Taken from a speech given last night by Sir Michael Holroyd, the president of the Royal Society of Literature, at the Travellers Club in London

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