« Discussion

Should Book Prizes Try Harder to Honor the Underappreciated?

By Dennis Abrams

To no one’s great surprise, two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel received the top honor at the Costa Book Awards for her novel, Bring Up the Bodies, defeating four other shortlisted titles for the 25,000 pound ($39,400) prize for 2012’s book of the year.  (All five of the shortlisted authors, including Mantel receive a 5,000 pound prize.)

Hillary Mantel added the Costa Book Award to her shelf of prizes this year, inciting a backlash.

Dame Jenni Murray, the judging panel’s chair said that Mantel was a unanimous winner and that her book stood “more than head and shoulders on stilts above the rest.”

Even so, not everyone was thrilled at the prospect of Mantel snagging yet another award.  Two days before the award ceremony, Susanna Rustin, writing in The Guardian, said of Mantel”

“Her achievement is immense, but this week I’m hoping she doesn’t win.  Britain’s big literary prizes are spaced out to give each a share of publicity.  Most years judges choose different books, each of whom can expect a boost in interest and sales.  The point of prizes is to award excellence, but different judgments and criteria mean there is rarely too much consensus, no single ‘book of the year.’

Mantel’s current dominance is an anomaly, but it seems to fit a literary landscape in which increasingly the giants (EL James, JK Rowling, Julia Donaldson, Jamie Oliver) reach untouchable heights while the middle is squeezed as ever before and the bottom has fallen out as publishers trim costs…The four other books on the Costa shortlist have racked up fewer than 30,000 sales between them.  Mantel has sold 240,000 copies of Bring Up the Bodies in hardback, and 740,000 of Wolf Hall

Mantel’s Booker double was deserved and had special resonance…But she doesn’t need the Costa, and its award to her would not serve readers well…”

And after the award was given, Robert McCrum, also writing in The Guardian, bemoaned that fact that “It’s an outcome that says a lot about the Costa prize, even more about the hard times in which Bring Up the Bodies has been published, but perhaps most of all about British literary culture in the age of the Kindle.

“A middlebrow triumph in a distinctly odd middlebrow prize by a dedicated writer who has struck a chord with the British reading public in a way that few English novelists have, this will certainly score a footnote in the history of early 21st century British fiction…This novel is nothing if not reassuring…First it takes one of medieval England’s greatest thrillers and gives it a clever contemporary spin. Mixed with sharp, modern dialogue, the narrative exploits the historic present to give an essentially hardcore historical novel some extra literary pizzazz…Whether it will be read as anything more than a fascinating curiosity in years to come is another matter.  Posterity is generally rather unkind towards crowd-pleasing prizewinners. And this is a prizewinner with knobs on.”

But in her acceptance speech, Mantel said that she was “not going to apologize” for winning yet another award, adding “I’m happy and I shall make it my business to try to write more books that will be worth more prizes.”

So tell us, should book prizes try harder to honor the underappreciated? Or, when they are timed accordingly, as they are in the UK, to at least spread the love a little?

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4 Comments

  1. Posted January 31, 2013 at 4:30 am | Permalink

    This author has obviously written a terrific book, which I have yet to read, and it it is the best in each competition than she should win. I congratulate her . She is quite right to go on to write more and hope to win more.
    Perhaps the solution is to share the prize money out over more competitions or sub-competitions each with different criteria restricting the type of book allowed to enter. Surely this is not difficult to oganise. Am I missing something here?

  2. Alison Finch
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 5:40 am | Permalink

    The prize for the best book should go to….er….the best book, in the judges opinion. If that happens to be the same book in one year, then other writers should up their game. In my job I read a lot of really truly awful material that ought not to have been published in the first place. When a wonderful novel like Bring Up The Bodies comes along, it is a rather marvellous thing and she deserves all the plaudits – and prizes – she can get.

  3. Posted January 31, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    She deserves all the plaudits undoubtedly, but how many flowers are born to blush unseen?

  4. Christina
    Posted January 31, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    If it’s truly a good book, then by all means she gets the prize. It’s quite frustrating to pick up a book that has won some award, start reading it and find out it’s terrible. Not everyone is a great author and, thus, not everyone deserves a ribbon.

    However, if they are only selecting her book because it is popular, fit’s their beliefs, offends the right people while insulting the others because it fits with current group think, or any other “not a good book” reason, then by all means fire the board determining who gets the prize.

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