Prize Disappointment Essay, Research Paper
Prize disappointmentThese are hard times. Those of us in the world of books who have, in the past, looked to literary prize ceremonies for a bit of harmless entertainment must confess to a mild sensation of disappointment this year.Whitbread passed with barely a frisson of controversy and, for once, it gave the prize to a worthy winner, Philip Pullman. The Orange Prize, awarded last week to Ann Patchett for her novel Bel Canto, was so cool that you would have to pinch yourself to remember that, only seven years ago, it began as a maenad screech of protest against the monstrous tyranny of the male fiction-writing establishment.And then there’s the highly valuable Samuel Johnson Prize (£30,000), awarded tomorrow, this year recorded for archive purposes by the television historians of BBC4.Exactly a year ago, the Samuel Johnson (as it’s known) showed promising form as the maverick troublemaker among book prizes. Andrew Marr, chairman of the judges, got things off to a flying start by announcing, before the ink was dry on the short-list, that non-fiction was the new rock’n'roll, that English fiction was toast and that the novel was dead etc.Large parts of Sweden were then stripped of trees to accommodate the feverish commentary (mine included) that followed this provocative suggestion. But this year – what? So far, alas, despite the presence on the judging panel of some gifted controversialists, and the chairmanship of David Dimbleby, the 2002 Samuel Johnson has been as stimulating as a wet afternoon in Lichfield.In one respect, however, the short-list is an intriguing one. A year after Mr Marr’s intervention, and in a kind of retrospective vindication of his thesis, it contains six titles of real distinction, collectively more interesting than any six novels published in London last year.Here’s the list: The Voices of Morebath by Eamon Duffy (Yale), everyday life in an English village during the drama of the Reformation; The Snow Geese by William Fiennes (Picador), an engaging autobiographical wild goose chase; The Invention of Clouds by Richard Hamblyn (Picador), the true story of Luke Howard, an amateur meteorologist and cult figure among the Romantics; Churchill by Roy Jenkins (Macmillan), a magnificent life of a great Briton; Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan (Murray), behind the scenes at the Paris Peace conference of 1919; and Unfinest Hour by Brendan Simms (Allen Lane), a passionate assault on Britain’s complicity in the destruction of Bosnia. If The Observer ’s reviews are anything to go by, Churchill must be the favourite.The Samuel Johnson invites submissions in all genres of non-fiction, from travel to popular science, to history and sports books, but what’s interesting about this list is that, apart from Unfinest Hour, all the books contain a strong biographical element.Does this, as some have suggested, support the idea that ‘biography is a particularly British art’? It’s impossible, and probably pointless, to draw useful conclusions from a single short-list, but there’s no doubt that biography today certainly challenges the novel in the depiction of character and in the exploration of new ideas.Bringing back the dead is an odd business, but it’s one that has a special place in the English literary tradition, marrying, as it does, the arts of imagination and criticism.In the absence of startling new fictional voices or arresting literary innovation, biography and autobiography have become genres that attract new talent and new money: publishers are certainly investing in, and then plugging, new British biographies. As a result, the newspaper review space devoted to lives, long and short, is probably as generous now as it’s ever been.Part of the vogue for biographies, and for the kind of narrative non-fiction that the Samuel Johnson has regrettably not short-listed this year, comes from the continuing public appetite for stories. At one level, a really entertaining biography, Selina Hastings’s marvellous life of Rosamond Lehmann, for instance, supplies an acceptable kind of high-class gossip. ‘Discretion,’ as Lytton Strachey memorably said, ‘is not the better part of biography.’ The British reading public loves a good tale, true or untrue. The same can probably be said of your average literary prize jury.Betting on book prizes is a mug’s game, but one thing’s for certain: in the absence of controversy or scandal, tomorrow’s winner of the Samuel Johnson will be highly entertaining, perhaps even unputdownable.So perhaps things aren’t quite as bad as they seem.