Forget the Booker, the prize every author really wants is academic validation

There's so many prizes today's writers aren't bothered about who wins. The purpose awards serve now is to tell readers what to read.

Related Topics

When I was still working as a bookseller, back in 2009, I once helped at an event in St. James’ Church, in Piccadilly. Margaret Atwood was performing parts of her then new book, The Year of the Flood, with a choir and actors. After the performance she sat at a table signing copies, while listening to a large glorifying litany of compliments to her work. She thanked in a politely dismissive way.

Until a woman approached her for her book to be signed and told the writer that she was writing her PhD dissertation on one of her books and if she was able to meet later for a conversation, or for an email interview. Immediately the writer lit up and imparted her private mobile number and email address.

Up to 2009, Margaret Atwood had written 13 novels, 9 short story collections, among children’s books, poetry and non-fiction. She had been awarded prizes internationally, including L.A. Times Fiction Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award, Booker Prize, Prince of Asturias Award, Nelly Sachs Prize, among many others. What else could validate the reputation of an award-winning writer with worldwide recognition? Though this might not be clear to most readers, but more than any award, what every writer actually desires is academic validation, i.e., having one (or more) of their novels included in a university reading list and/or being object of dissertations and monographs.

But why are prizes so mistrusted these days? There are many possible answers, but two make, out of this many, more sense.

Prizes have become banal. There is a prize, an award, for almost every thing. And every writer that wants to sell enough books to make a living out of it, must, at least, have been laureled once or twice. The excess of awards makes them less valuable, thus also taking value from the awardee, person and book.

Creative writing courses seem to be contributing for this overall lack of literary sensibility

There is also a great distrust of awards’ judges. One of the best examples comes from Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. As William Gaddis recorded, “when Gravity's Rainbow is being devoured by college youth everywhere and wins the National Book Award, its unanimous recommendation by the Pulitzer jury is overturned by the trustees.” Even if they are part of the industry, as publishers, writers, critics and even academics, often these people are not visible. And in no circumstance are their credentials questioned.

More recently, controversy rose over the Man Booker International Prize. Judge Carmen Callil resigned after the award was given to Philip Roth. Overruled by fellow judges, she did not think Philip Roth deserved the award. She explained herself, “I don't rate him as a writer at all. I made it clear that I wouldn't have put him on the longlist, so I was amazed when he stayed there.”

Still, awards play an immensely important part in today’s literary panorama. They tell people what to read. Books are no longer the preferred medium for the transmission of information and knowledge – being replaced by radio and TV, respectively, and, more recently, by the internet. Thus, literature graduations that were meant to teach people what to read and how to read have become obsolete. And that is where awards play their role. They might teach what, but not why.

In addition, creative writing courses seem to be contributing to this overall lack of literary sensibility. By slowly replacing literature graduations – that focus, essentially, on reading – creative writing courses are manufacturing more writers than readers, and therefore unbalancing the scale dangerously. This leads to the necessity of more awards to inform people of what to read. And publishers, of course, say thank you very much. By trying to perpetrate one artistic form, creative writing courses are slowly slaughtering it.

It seems natural, then, that some awards are more valuable than others. And this is by no means financially, though it often overlaps. Certainly the Guardian’s first book award is more relevant than David Higham Prize for the Best First Novel, just as the Booker is better than the Welsh Arts Council Fiction Award. And the Nobel trumps them all – Pulitzer and National Book Award included. Does this mean that the Nobel remains the last trustworthy award?

Maybe not the trustworthiest when it comes to literary awards, but definitely the most coveted literary laurel. In the words of Alfred Nobel, it awards “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” Maybe for this reason, the Nobel Prize for literature is the paragon. But even this has not been without controversy, as many authors such as Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, despite their outstanding outputs, were never awarded, though widely recognised. And in more recent years the Prize has become more and more politicised, to the point where some believe that it will never be again awarded to an American writer.

In the wise words of William Gaddis, “write what they want and you'll end up with a Pulitzer Prize follow you right to the grave. Maybe won the George Cross even the Nobel but once you've been stigmatized with the ultimate seal of mediocrity your obit will read Pulitzer Prize Novelist Dies.”

Miguel Fernandes Ceia is a writer, editor and translator. He is speaking at Bored of the Booker: prizes, prizes everywhere at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 20 October

Independent Voices is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest articles from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
John Rentoul met Ed Miliband aged 23, remarking he was “bright, and put up a good fight for the utilities tax, but I was unconvinced.”  

General Election 2015: Win or lose, Ed Miliband is not ready to govern

John Rentoul
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk