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Book prizes: because even a scribbling asshole’s gotta eat

Salman Rushdie: not just an award-winning writer, but GQ’s Man of the Year 2012. PA Archive

According to the very great, very funny and utterly bloody-minded Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, in his book My Prizes: An Accounting (2011) - in which he heaps scorn upon the many literary prizes with which he was honoured, including the Grillparzer Prize, the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, the Julius Campe Prize, and half a dozen others - the people who decide which “scribbling asshole” gets a prize are themselves “assholes”, and also “washouts”, and “bastards”, and invariably, in Austria, “Catholic and National Socialist assholes plus the occasional Jew for window-dressing”.

Guilty as charged. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce myself. I am an asshole. I am a washout. I am a bastard, I am a beslimer of literature, a representative of all that is evil, acquisitive, competitive, hierarchical, and generally horrid in our de-politicised, hyper-hyped post-industrial so-called society. I am the judge of a literary prize: to be precise, the Warwick Prize for Writing - the shortlist of which will be announced on Friday.

In My Prizes - certainly worth reading, though not before one has read Correction (1975), The Loser (1983), and Woodcutters (1984), all books which make you want to rush out and become a businessman, or an armaments manufacturer, in order to become a philanthropist, in order to be able to set up a prize in order to award it to Thomas Bernhard - he explains that did not refuse his many prizes because he was “greedy for money”. At least he was honest.

Because here’s a terrible truth about the current state of literature: it is extremely difficult to earn money from writing. Not only difficult, in fact, but almost impossible. I know: I was a freelance writer and novelist for ten years before returning to academe because I realised that my children needed shoes more than I needed another lunch with a booze-ruddy commissioning editor who might promise to toss me a few crumbs before jumping in a taxi to go and soft soap a soap star, or a comedian, or a celebrity chef and to try and persuade them to pen their autobiography for the price of a small flat in London NW1, or a holiday home in the Cotswolds.

So that’s one good reason to award prizes: to distribute money to actual writers writing actual books. There are of course other ways of distributing money to writers, or redistributing it, but these are often ineffective.

Last year the excellent Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned down the award of the Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize from the Hungarian PEN Club, worth a whopping €50,000, because of the prize’s partial funding by the right-wing Hungarian government. Ferlinghetti suggested that the money be used instead to set up a fund for “the publication of Hungarian authors whose writings support total freedom of speech”. No sign so far of that fund being established.

Another good reason to award prizes is their obvious enheartening effect: it cheers people up, particularly the recipients. Even charity, as I believe Dickens may have remarked, though it may have been Groucho Marx, must have its romance. Prizes may be frivolous, but - call me old-fashioned - frivolity is fun.

Also, the awarding of a prize is an important form of public announcement. The repertoire of gestures available to us as enthusiastic readers is strictly limited: we can review the book on Amazon, we can we can buy copies for our friends, we can bang on about it in book groups, or in learned seminars, but what reader wouldn’t want the opportunity to make a gesture that was really visible, and audible, that made people sit up and think: “You know, I’m not going to watch that repeat of Come Dine With Me tonight. I’m going to check out this guy Thomas Bernhard, he sounds like a lot of fun.” Think of a prize-giving as a small group in a large stadium beginning a Mexican wave.

The high-minded may think of this as no better than a crass advertisement or commercial, but the awarding of a prize at least acknowledges that literature belongs in the public space, and amounts to more than the mere consumption of private pleasures in the service of one’s own private interests and edification. There may be something necessarily vulgar and approximate about prize-giving, and it may be an impertinence for some small select group to suggest that this or that book is more deserving of attention than this other, but perhaps this impertinence might excite an impertinent response, and then another response, and another, and so on and so forth. This, I believe, is what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called the conversation of mankind.

It’s also possible that a prize might help instill in the rest of us some humility. Honestly, as the judge of a literary prize all I’m really doing is saying, loudly, “Wow”.

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