Following on from Tuesday’s rant on writerly whinging, I now want to expand on prizes.
Writers’ earnings have always been as cyclical as weather. Yet to hear the Literati today, you’d swear that art would die if it weren’t for bursaries and awards and prizes and residencies and general state-level support for the gargantuan brains of our literary greats.
There is, however, an argument for the necessity of prizes in particular. There are millions of readers in the world, myself included, who might want to read great literary fiction, but would rarely if ever find the right books if their marketing was left solely to the machinations of the 2 most powerful and yet dubious forces for book publicity on the planet (industry-led PR and author-led social media campaigning).
The great thing about prizes, which doesn’t apply to bursaries or state support, is that the public is at least allowed to have an opinion on longlists, shortlists and winners. And there is far too much politics involved in state-funded arts programmes. In the bad old days in Ireland, for instance, it looked something like this:
The Writer: Ah, blessings of God on you Surrrr. How is your mother for the apples of the earth? What ho, I find myself nearing the end of my Opus Maximus, but faith and begorrah, I am fierce short on the necessaries.
The Arts Council: Sorry. We’re not giving out any grants right now.
The Writer: Why not?
The Arts Council: We spent all the money on a locally unpopular sculpture for the craggiest outpost of Leitrim. Where they get 3 tourists a year.
The Writer: But what am I supposed to do?
The Arts Council: I dunno. Burn your manuscript for fuel?
The Writer: Did I tell you my father was in Fianna Fail in the 1930s?
The Arts Council: Will 15 grand do? We can have it to you by teatime.
However, it was not always like this. Regardless of the panic-speak about self-publishing, Amazon and the death of the novel, writers have never had it so good. Outside of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, distributors of both priceless fame and mega money since 1901 and 1917 respectively, the notion of large sums of money being given to exceptional writers is a relatively new one.
Nowadays, princely sums of between £30,000 and £50,000 are regularly awarded to the winners of household-name awards, and that doesn’t even account for the hundreds and thousands of smaller national awards which don’t become instant headlines.
Before 1968, there was no Booker prize for long-form novel; 2010 was the first year for the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award; the £30,000 Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly Orange and several other names we couldn’t be bothered to remember) kicked off in 1996; the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Book Award slid into being in 1971 and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, bestower of a sweet €100,000, is another 1996 alumnus.
In addition, these sweetly ripe cash prizes don’t even take into account the massive sales spikes enjoyed by shortlisted and longlisted authors, whether they win or not.
The moral of the story is: Prizes are LOVELY. And so is coming second, or third. And so are shortlists and longlists and honourable mentions and any other encouragement you can think of.
Truth is, we’re not living in such a bad old time. I can’t wait to tell people in sixty years how much better it was in the olden days.