Following on from my report on the James Tait Black Prizes event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, and in advance of the forthcoming ‘The Politics of Prizes’ event scheduled for the afternoon of 25thAugust, I have decided to put together some more scattered thoughts about the scope – the limitations, in fact – of literary prizegiving.
What the hell is a literary prize, and what should it be doing?
I mentioned in my previous post that we who are involved in picking the books that make it through the various stages of a literary competition are the gatekeepers of what is considered to be literature. This is not a new idea, but nevertheless it seems to be one which we gatekeepers deal with reactively and not proactively. We react to clamour, both public and private, to include more published writing from this or that community or culture. We do not look sufficiently outward, and are therefore our taxonomy is our downfall.
My field of research falls within the general area of what I consider to have been the most important mass literacy event of the 20c, the post-WW2 boom in cheap, pocket-sized paperback books in America. These books proliferated in retail outlets other than bookshops. The books themselves – and I’m talking here mainly about works of fiction commissioned by publishing houses to go straight into print under soft covers – many of which pushed the envelope in niches and sub-genres, were completely under the radar of literary criticism simply because they did not come out in hardback. Thus they also missed out on being considered for literary prizes. They weren’t simply turned away at the gate, they weren’t even considered to have approached it. Yet sometimes they outsold mainstream books.
Now, a lot of these books could be considered ‘trashy’, or at best to have a value that is measured only with respect to their capacity for entertainment. But to ignore them took conscious taxonomy. I forget who it was that first pointed out that taxonomy is not a matter of gathering together like with like, but a process of exclusion (I think it was Michel Foucault, but if anyone knows better, please enlighten me). When we are asked to widen the field of our consideration for prizes, we are not being asked to include something but to stop excluding it.
Although my personal concern is to question the ‘Chinese walls’ that have been erected between the popular and the canonical, I am not making that specific argument here. Rather, I am using it as a lead-in. Because even when we ‘stop excluding’ something we are being reactive, not proactive.
We need to ask ourselves what do we even mean by ‘literature’. At present, certainly when it comes to prizes, we have a view of literature which we think we see clearly in front of us. It is plainly contained in a square. That square holds what we consider to be the published work that deserves our attention. If we see any other types of literature, they are contained in their own squares.
But literature isn’t like that. It isn’t even a spectrum with, say, dead white guys at one end and post-colonial literature at the other. It just isn’t that two-dimensional. Literature is, to appropriate a definition from Doctor Who, a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, literary-witerary… stuff (“Blink”)! The dimensions of this ball are probably growing – though they might be shrinking, who knows! – and the genres within it, which we tend to think of still as contained within their squares or separate little shapes, have boundaries which are both porous and leaky. They absorb influences from others, and in turn influence others. It is less easy to exclude a piece of work from a particular shape than we imagine.
Perhaps the organisers of literary awards should stop waiting to be lobbied before they include something. Perhaps they should actively look outwards now, on their own initiative, without being pestered by anyone to do so. What could they look at? What could they explore? I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive answer, but here are three suggestions.
Self-published ‘print-on-demand’ books.
Probably the biggest explosion in publishing of recent times has come from within the ‘blogosphere’ and from the internet platforms that host self-published fiction and nonfiction books in all niches and genres. Just as the mass of paperbacks of the 1950s were ‘under the radar’, so are these. The right to be an “Author-God” has been democratised, and far from being dead the author is very much alive, pace Roland Barthes (146). As a literary agent I know that somewhat less than two percent of all manuscripts submitted by authors to agents actually get published commercially. The author/agent/publisher process is, let’s face it, yet another gatekeeping system, and many authors have simply stepped round the gate and found a gap in the hedge. A lot of work published in that way may well be mediocre, but one has to admire the self-confidence of the authors who go to the trouble of taking this step.
However, some of these books have been very successful and have gained praise for their quality. They have obviously been crafted by writers who have put maximum thought and creativity into their work. Some will even have employed reading agents or editors to help them polish their work.
There, of course, I introduce another gatekeeping process – the editing stage. But what about books that have not been edited, maybe because the author can’t afford it? Is outlay to be a factor in deciding what is and isn’t literature?
I know a particular author very well. We have had many a conversation about why her work won’t be accepted by a commercial publishing house. It is because of her lack of education, and she acknowledges that. Her spelling, grammar, and punctuation are unorthodox, sometimes confusing; she can even choose the wrong word – “partition” for “petition,” for example. Nevertheless her stories are very imaginative, and sometimes her sales of a particular self-published book will be well into four figures. Should we really be excluding work that has a brilliance of its own but comes from a disadvantaged background, with that background showing through?
When text is not ‘text’; or when ‘text’ is not text.
In that previous example, I believe I have highlighted a problem with the taxonomy applied to literary prizes. We have a mind-set that has only progressed a short way from that of the educated and liberal gentlemen of the late eighteenth century, who examined the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, a slave brought to America from West Africa, and declared that as she was eminently literate, that proved that people of African heritage possessed the gift of reason (see Gates). To these gentlemen, the standard proof for intellect was literacy. They could not see that Phillis Wheatley would have been just as intelligent had she never learned to read or write; and if she was intelligent, then most likely so were any persons from the culture from which she had been forced away.
Scholars of Linguistics have, for a while, extended the definition of ‘text’ to include the spoken word. In privileging the printed word in our prizes, we have accepted, promoted, and perpetuated a definition of ‘literature’ that is based wholly on the culture of the North West quadrant of the globe, the centres of former worldwide empires and current commercial empires. In expecting text-creators from outside that quadrant, most likely from formerly colonised places, to conform to that definition, we have asked and expected them to maintain their colonised selves. Yet what about the storytellers and history-speakers from some of the cultures in West Africa, maybe from where Phillis Wheatley was uprooted? If the definition of ‘text’ now reaches beyond paper, printing, and of course screen, could we also look beyond the printed word for ‘literature’?
The future, and interactively experienced fiction.
In a presentation last week at the Book Festival, Jamie Susskind introduced us to the coming, and indeed present, world of “increasingly capable systems.” He spoke of the probability that artificial intelligence systems will become so ubiquitous and integrated into our very environment – even our bodies if we so wished – that the distinction between online and offline, between reality and virtuality, would soon no longer exist, and moreover that our children would not understand the distinction (Moore & Susskind).
Imagine someone moving through a ubiquitous ‘smart’ environment, interacting constantly through technology so embedded that they do not distinguish it from any other part of their consciousness. Imagine that in their interaction they are creating, from the affordances of the ‘smart’ environment, an ever-changing fictional account. That account is uploaded, clouded, and shared directly into the consciousness of others, who may consume or even co-create. How will this differ from the creativity of what we currently understand as an author? Will it differ at all?
In that speculative bit of sci-fi, I am merely saying that perhaps we givers of literary prizes should not be waiting to be prodded into expanding our scope, or in discovering what we might have missed, we should be imagining the future and planning to include what it will bring.
What benefit would there be to keeping things as they are?
It’s a valid question. The suggestions I have made above are not necessarily ‘killer arguments’ and they’re not really meant to be. They’re meant to question and to stimulate critical thought about literary prizes.
It can be argued that by focusing on literary fiction, awards such as the James Tait Black give impetus to the continued creation of a particular art form. Widening the scope to include, say, science fiction or graphic novels would, perhaps, mean their having to abandon striving for that particular excellence within a form that is stimulated and currently honoured by its fellow-practitioners in the Hugo and the Eisner Awards. Keeping competitions at arm’s length, for all the problems of taxonomy that would entail, gives the chance for excellence to be seen, to be recognised, and to flourish in discrete fields.
Keeping things more-or-less as they are would of course be an exercise in conservation, and in conservatism, but it would have to persist in the face of criticism of its narrowness, or at best of its piecemeal gradualism.
And what about fields for which there is no national or international recognition? Is there an equivalent of the Man Booker, but for self-published books? If not, who’ll set one up!
Are these ‘political’ questions?
I should imagine that as you have been reading this you have come up with arguments and counter-arguments of your own. That is good. I’m not the formal arbiter of anything that goes on in the world of literary prizes. I say “the world of” deliberately, because what I have been talking about is not something in the theoretical realm, it happens ‘out there’ in the ‘polis’, and as such is definitely ‘political’. I am looking forward greatly to the event on the 25th, where I am sure I am going to hear much that I haven’t even thought of while I’ve been drafting this blog post.
Details of the Book Festival event follow at the foot of this post. I hope my readers will attend, if they can make it.
Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. translated by Stephen Heath.
“Blink.”Doctor Who. BBC, 9thJune 2007.
Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America’s Second Black
Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers, Basic
Civitas Books, 2010.
Moore, Martin, & Jamie Susskind, panellists. “Politics in the
Digital Realm.” Spark Theatre, Edinburgh International
Book Festival, 15thAugust 2019.
Images with this post are either @Paul Thompson or in the public domain.
The Politics of Prizes
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Sun 25 Aug 14:15 – 15:15
Garden Theatre, Charlotte Square Gdns, Edinburgh
This year marks the centenary of the James Tait Black Prizes, Britain’s oldest literary awards. Does the list of winners reflect the greatest novels of the century? Two literary prize organisers discuss what it takes to win, and why some great writers miss out: Ellah Wakatama Allfrey was a 2015 Booker Prize judge and is now chair of the Caine Prize for African Writing and Fiammetta Rocco runs the Man Booker International Prize.