Commentary: Frances Wilson, a Judge for This Year's Whitbread, Argues That the Really Scandalous Thing about Literary Prizes Is That They Insist on Rewarding Writers for Virtue
Wilson, Frances, New Statesman (1996)
Literature, according to F R Leavis, should make you a better person. These days we find this querulous categorising of books into those which are good for you, and those which are not, more quaint than instructive. Still, when it comes to judging prizes, we are all Leavisites: a good book is an improving experience.
This, at least, is the conclusion I came to last summer when, as a judge on the biography panel of the Whitbread Book Awards, I attempted to weigh up the relative merits of the 60 or so biographies, autobiographies, diaries, memoirs and confessions that were stacked up around the house like the seven pillars of wisdom. How can you begin to evaluate books in a category as catholic as this? The Whitbread prize, the overall winner of which is announced on 24 January, is awarded to the book that has given the judges most "pleasure", but even pleasures have categories of their own. The pleasure of a lock-in at your local is different from the pleasure of a bracing walk with fine views, and it is pleasure of the sort that makes you a better person that the Whitbread is looking for.
The read that gave me the most pleasure was The Insider, Piers Morgan's diary of his decade as a tabloid editor. It is a juicy evocation of the moral vacuum of the media world, and the pleasure it provides is, need I say, very much of the "wrong" sort. The Insider is a scandalous book whose subject is scandal, but it would have created more of a scandal had it been shortlisted alongside works of outstanding scholarship such as Hilary Spurling's Matisse or of raw emotional honesty, such as Richard Mabey's Nature Cure.
A book can be a good read even when, as Mae West put it, goodness has nothing to do with it. So what value do we give to the pleasure of the scandalous book, in which the author confesses his sins without seeking salvation? Other books that gave me the wrong sort of pleasure were Diana Melly's memoir of her adulterous years with George, Take a Girl Like Me, and Tracey Emin's odyssey of sex and self, Strangeland. Because neither woman learned any lesson or reformed her wanton ways, neither will ever be garlanded with laurels.
Have literary judges always been such moral arbiters? Imagine judging a prize for biography in the 1820s, and having to choose between William Hazlitt's frenzied account of his sexual obsession with a servant, Liber Amoris (1823), Thomas De Quincey's self-explanatory Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822), and the stylish, racy Memoirs of the courtesan Harriette Wilson (1825), which was written as an exercise in blackmail on a grand scale and implicated practically the whole establishment, from the king, four prime ministers, the cabinet and shadow cabinet to most titled men in Mayfair and a good deal of the army. …