By Hope, Christopher
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 125, No. 4289
Prizes, it is endlessly repeated, are "good for books". That's the mantra relayed from literary headquarters with the sort of endearing optimism behind the belief that carrots improve night vision. The winning novel gets a lift. Publishers may pin flags on it, pile it high, sell it hard. Writers may hate the catwalk on which they find themselves competing, but they like the payoff. Is there anything worse than being entered in the Literary Lovely Leg stakes? Not being entered.
A literary prize is, also, a sum of money given by sponsors no-one has heard of to writers few have read, in the hopes of improving the reputations of both. Thus we are faced with the paradox that these competitions are an assault on writers in which writers often collaborate. Prizes, then, are a form of self-abuse.
In the light of the above, to sit on a prize jury may seem to be a species of collaboration. Yet I persist in believing that since awards are always with us, it is better to have writers, practitioners, people who ply the trade, taking a hand in the decisions made. The alternatives are clear and ghastly. More judges will arise from the jeering classes--those whose favourite reading is the autocue because it allows them to move their lips without giving the game away and those who not only do not write novels but, proudly, seldom read them either.
The type will be familiar to anyone who watches the trial by television that accompanies the Booker dinner: where writers trapped like rabbits in the lights of the circling cameras parade in the arena between the Soup and the Announcement. In some distant studio sits the familiar panel from hell: the rumpled iconoclast, the seething bard, and the pert criticaster.
I recently served on the jury of the latest fiction prize, the International Impac Dublin Literary Award, sponsored by an American management company and the city of Dublin, an amalgam that ensures the name of the prize does not trip off the tongue. Never mind, money improves the neurones and no-one forgets that the prize is worth 100,000[pounds] to the winner. More than 130 nominations were made, not by publishers but by libraries throughout the world. English fiction in all varieties is elegible, as well as books translated into English. Meeting in Dublin, the judging panel included writers from Argentina, the US, Ireland and Portugal. The winner, chosen from a strong shortlist, was David Malouf for his wonderful novel about fetching up in Australia, Remembering Babylon.
All fine and dandy, you might think. Well, not quite. Respectable literary opinion in Dublin is horrified. The Americans have imported mad prize disease. The Irish Times, sidling up to the thing as if it were a suspect parcel, signalled everyone to stay well back. The reasoning appears to be that giving away big bucks to writers is very fishy. …