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Shortly after reading Adam Roberts’s excellent post on awards, Maureen pointed out a passage in the current TLS. It is a review, by Keith Jeffery, of My Dear Hugh: Letters from Richard Cobb to Hugh Trevor-Roper and others edited by Tim Heald. Cobb was the chair of the Booker Prize in 1984, and, as Jeffery quotes him:

There he claimed to have done “a little NEGATIVE good” by keeping Martin Amis and Angela Carter off the shortlist, “and manoeuvred so that Ballard did not get the prize”.

My dilemma is that I am a great supporter of awards (given my history, you wouldn’t really expect much else), but I can’t help seeing problems with them.

Popular vote awards are unreliable because a vanishingly small proportion of voters will have read all the eligible works. Even when it comes to the shortlist, the chances are that a sizeable proportion of voters, if not an outright majority, will NOT have read all the works on the list. Any result is inevitably going to be partial, and based to a plethora of external factors such as word of mouth, reputation, previous works, likeability, and so on.

Juried awards are unreliable because they can be manipulated (as Cobb clearly did) by the prejudices of one member, because the jury is never representative of the readership, and because if the jury changes year by year then then the standards and attributes they wish to honour will vary, yet if the jury does not change it will grow hidebound in its opinions and attitudes.

Worst of all, NONE of them is actually choosing the best book, even though that is the only ostensive purpose of any literary award. Because no two people can ever agree on what ‘best’ actually means, let alone on what work most closely achieves that mythical status.

I think, therefore, that we misinterpret awards if we think they are meant to pick the best. (In a sense, perhaps, we are meant to misinterpret them?) ‘Best’ is our interpretation of what they do, looking from the outside (I admit I am not entirely an outsider on this, but for most awards and in most instances I am). ‘Best’ is shorthand for ‘the work that such-and-such an award has picked this year’; but best is meaningless, even in the narrow confines of any individual award. Awards do not pick the best book. Juried awards pick the book that the majority of the jury can agree on; popular vote awards pick the book that most members of the electorate are prepared to vote for. In every instance, the individual voters or jurors may well believe they are picking the book that is best for them, but that does not translate into the eventual winner being the best book.

So when people call for awards to be reformed, or when they create new awards to put things right, my response is to shrug and say: sure, if you want. It’s not going to make much difference. All awards have a systemic problem, and reformation will only change one systemic problem for another. And a new award will not correct a fault in old awards; it will just do something different that has faults of its own. The real problem, that we are never going to solve, probably because we are never really going to address it as a problem, is us. We invest emotionally in awards. We know we shouldn’t, we know it’s foolish, we know it’s meaningless, but we do. Because we know, inside ourselves, that one book is better than another, that one writer is better than another. We don’t always know how or why, but it is an inherent part of our approach to literature. And we believe that, in some way, awards should address and demonstrate this. And in fact they do, but never quite in ways we accept or respect or agree with.

So awards are always necessary, and always wrong.