NWR Issue 85

The Common Reader

As I write, the winner of the Wales Book of the Year has just been announced: Deborah Kay Davies for her remarkable short story collection Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful. It's been a truly vintage year for Welsh writers and publishers. Prior to the longlist announcement, I drew up my own prediction of who would make it to the top ten. I whittled my list down to fifteen titles, all of which I thought would stand a strong chance - a combination of those works that I was certain would attract the attention of a judging panel and my own personal 'picks'. I was surprised on both counts. This year's longlist defied fashion. Most remarkably, poetry represented the majority genre for the first time in the history of the prize, and two short story collections were given the nod in an era when you'll be hard pressed to find a short story collection by a contemporary writer in any bookshop at all.

There will always be those who will quibble with the judges, of course. And, in a prize such as this, how do you differentiate quality across the genres? But the Wales Book of the Year has shown - and not for the first time - the good things that literary awards can and should do: broaden readerly expectations and appetites, attach value to art over commerce, make themselves and the work they reward, or indeed fail to, a truly interesting talking point. But not all prizes are equal.

Right now, the awards season continues apace across the wider UK. In fact, such a glut of awards currently exists that the season takes up around nine months of the year. But for how much longer? The Corporate Social Responsibility departments were largely a product of the financial boom. And, in a time of restraint, charity, as they say, begins at home. There is no question that many prizes will disappear over the next five years as funding dries up. Some will be greatly missed. And others? Well…

The deregulation of literature since the 1980s has introduced a host of new and exciting voices to the mix, including those from ethnic backgrounds and, with dramatic consequences in the reshaping of the landscape, women. But prizes, with their reassuring stamp of quality for the common reader, have brought in an entirely new form of regulation, one which can offer unprecedented publicity and sales to the chosen few or deny any at all for the overlooked. This is not an overstated point. Many Man Booker nominees have sales in the low hundreds prior to their longlisting and shortlisting. Their position in the commercial pecking order changes quite significantly afterwards, however, with sales climbing comfortably into the thousands and often skyrocketing into the many thousands during the life of that year's prize. Prize nominations are one of the very few ways in which an unstarry or debut author can be confident that their work willbe given critical notice in the broadsheets. In a curious economy, huge publicity garners a chance of some good old-fashioned critical appraisal. A case, perhaps, of the cart before the horse. With shrinking literary pages in the broadsheets, this is only set to continue.

It gets stranger still. For the prizes that reward the chosen few with publicity and notices in the newspapers are themselves subject to the very same market forces. They, too, need to appear glamorous, newsworthy and, increasingly, hip. If they fail to achieve this, sponsors become unhappy and rapidly alienated. Without the obligatory appearance of major names and major publishers, many literary prizes would fail to secure enduring support.

This is not to say that such names and publishers don't deserve recognition. Simply that the often unimaginative replication of titles across many prizes suggests that all may not be well. While Welsh writers are making significant inroads as regards the longlists and shortlists for the big fiction or non-fiction prizes in the UK, it would appear there is still some way to go - despite the fact that many are writing to the equal or, in fact, surpassing the standard of their peers elsewhere. Supporters of more, not less, literary prizes would argue that they democratise literature for authors and publishers (and even, more questionably, for readers). But the truth is that for the overwhelming majority of talented writers and committed publishers more literary prizes often mean more, not less, chances to be ignored. It strikes me that mainstream fictioneers are a lucky breed, particularly in these difficult times. With few prizes to garland them, they enjoy a strikingly adventurous and wide-ranging readership, requiring no patronage. For all the challenges that the recession undoubtedly presents to publishing, could it be that giving readers the chance to do more of the work themselves may produce some unexpected, positive side effects? We'll soon find out.


previous editorial: Apparitions
next editorial: Twenty-One


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