Michael Holroyd: Prizes for literature are seldom worth winning

From a speech by the biographer at the Gothenburg Book Festival

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband created a crisis of confidence about himself within Labour when he forgot to mention the deficit in his party conference speech  

The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Andrew Grice
 

Beware of the jovial buffoon who picks fights overseas

Boyd Tonkin
Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect