Let’s Art-iculate #5: Who Cares About Book Awards?

The Pulitzer Prize, The Man Booker Prize, The Whitbread (Costa) Book Awards, The National Book Award…these are just to name a small few of the seemingly never ending list of book awards. As I took my weekly trip to Waterstones I was greeted by the harrowing sight of the latest Man-Booker prize winner: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. The first thought that popped into my head when I saw this was not ‘Oh, maybe I should now buy this because it’s clearly amazing ‘, instead, I found myself thinking ‘Who cares? Who cares about this book more because it has won an award?’, and in my opinion none of us should judge a book’s merit by an award it has won.

I am not saying that the books that win these awards do not deserve to be heralded as something special. Turning literature into a competition that involves a process of eliminating other great books, however, based on the subjective opinion of a few judges to announce only one as a winner, is similar to television programmes such as X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. The questions here is, ‘who actually gets to decide who wins book awards?’

“The books that win these awards are judged off an equally subjective opinion as our own”

It was quite a shock to discover that finding the judges of these book awards is actually surprisingly difficult. I eventually found one judge for the Man-booker award named Sam Leith, and in an article for The Guardian entitled: ‘The Man Booker Prize 2015: One judge on the Impossible Task of Choosing a Winner’, Leith admits that there is a definite ‘gameshow’ aspect to choosing a winner. They are somewhat forced to half a long-list of ’13 first-rate novels’, which Leith proclaims is ‘for no good reason other than that’s the way the game works’. Describing literature and books in terms of a gameshow, suggesting that their fate is almost played with, worries me about the place of books and literature in a society already obsessed with brutal competition. It is also suggested in this article that the choosing of a winner is based on a subjective opinion, and more importantly we, as the normal everyday readers, do not get a choice or a say on whether we agree or not.

“The questions here is, ‘who actually gets to decide who wins book awards?’”

This is the exact reason I have a problem with book awards and the reason I believe none of us should ever judge a book by its award. For example, Wolf Hall was the 2009 winner of the Man Booker Prize and something that every first year English student is forced to read, and I absolutely hated it. I understand that there will be some who love the novel, but I found that a lot of my peers found the book to be boring and pretentious. I distinctly remember having so many conversations about disliking the book and the question ‘But wait, didn’t it win an award?’ popped up so many times, as if the fact it has won an award should shut down our reasons for disliking it. However, the books that win these awards are judged off an equally subjective opinion as our own, and caring about a book more, or simply buying a book because it has won an award is simply ridiculous. Even the judges themselves admit farcical nature in choosing one book as a forerunner out of a group of equally fantastic books who deserve the same merit.

Larissa Rowan

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