I am not impressed by books that win prizes and I’d like to think Joseph Pulitzer, Alfred Nobel and Mr Booker would agree with me. When these awards started, I’m sure they the founders had the best of intentions: to recognise and reward the best books and writers.
But it soon got perverted into something else. Today, books are not written with the sole intention of being good. They are written with a thought to impressing book-prize judges. Themes and styles are chosen accordingly. What’s the latest politically correct subject? Read all about it in the latest award-winning novel.
It’s not hard to see why. Books don’t sell much, certainly not books that have the word ‘literature’ floating anywhere near them, and these awards supply much-needed money, and even more importantly, publicity. The writer can give up the day job, perhaps.
I’ve never read anything by Sully Prudhomme, and haven’t got anything against him, but I have to question why he won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy and Henrik Ibsen, to name just three, did not.
This is because, in my view, the best books are written by people who are thought to be stark-raving mad by the establishment in their time. The writers are different, and so is their work.
Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs, is, according to Wikipedia, one of the landmark publications in the history of American literature.
At least that’s what they think today.
When it came out, they didn’t say that. It was banned in some parts of America and the publishers were harassed. There wasn’t a glitzy awards ceremony with bow ties and champagne, but an obscenity trial.
Great books don’t pander to the establishment, they challenge it. Eventually they change the world, but the established world does not give up without a fight.
And in this sense, the book industry, with its publishers, agents, publicists and prizes, is that establishment. I can see their point of view: every time they publish a book, they are putting on the line not just their reputation but their entire business: a string of flops and suddenly they are looking for new jobs. Take risks, yes, but calculated ones.
So they can’t afford to be anything other than cautious. And if there is one thing that a great book is most definitely not, it is cautious.
Why I am writing this? Oh yes, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, and A Visit from The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. The former won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, the latter in 2011.
Guess what? Not at all bad, either of them. I’m glad I read them, and not just to prove I was right about book prizes.
Oscar Wao has that fashionable backdrop of a central American dictatorship, and there’s a bit of magic realism thrown in, and that all-time winner in the modern day, a re-examination of masculinity.
Goon Squad has youth culture, ageing, the American Dream, plus a bit of non-linear story telling, which everyone loves these days. And, best of all, Egan said she was inspired by Proust and The Sopranos.
I’m being a bit cynical here.
Don’t get me wrong: they are worth reading.
But don’t expect them to stick in your mind.
Don’t expect them to be the sort of book that your reading thereof would be a landmark your life: I was this person before I read a particular book, and a different person after it.
Because in today’s literary world, that isn’t the point at all.
Am I right, or am I talking rubbish?