Michael Holroyd: Prizes for literature are seldom worth winning

From a speech by the biographer at the Gothenburg Book Festival
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The Independent Online

Our literary culture in Britain is defined by lists of best-sellers and lists of prize-winners. And on the whole it is a stupid and misleading culture.

Our literary culture in Britain is defined by lists of best-sellers and lists of prize-winners. And on the whole it is a stupid and misleading culture.

It is worth remembering what V S Naipaul said on winning the British Literature Prize: "At a certain stage there is no real competition between writers since every serious writer has his own concerns, makes his own explorations and (with luck) finds his own audience."

The British Literature Prize (which I have twice chaired) is our version of the Nobel Prize. It is not given for a single work, but for a lifetime's achievement. There is, as with the Nobel, no parade of losers dragged before you at the prize ceremony. But of course, this does not prevent a great deal of journalistic speculation about losers.

The Nobel, as we know, has somewhat specialised in this bruising speculation. Graham Greene's failure to win the Nobel filled up a good deal of his obituaries. But it is not only the losers who suffer. I remember William Golding saying to me after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983: "You know - I haven't a friend left." And many of you will remember Samuel Beckett's hopeful response on first hearing the news that he had won the Nobel in 1969: "There must be some mistake." But he was disappointed. There was no mistake.

"Woe unto me when all men praise me !" says St Joan at the end of Shaw's play - and that was his own reaction to the news that he had won the Nobel Prize. "It was," he later said, "a hideous calamity for me." He believed that you cannot give examination marks for works of art and literature.

The administration of big prizes such as the Nobel devoured energy quite pointlessly. And his own energy was taken up answering begging letters, proposals of marriage, attacks and congratulations. In short: it was a farce.

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