Should Book Prizes Try Harder to Honor the Underappreciated?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

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?

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.