Friday, October 14, 2011

It's literary awards season and...

Let the griping begin. Actually, the Canadian scene turned out kinda interesting with two novels that few had ever heard of before hitting the literary equivalent of a grand-slam homer by making it to the shortlist of the GGs, the Rogers Trust, the Giller and the Man Booker. One of them even looks like it's loads of fun to read, which would be a switch for most literary prizes. And that's part of the point of this interesting critique of this year's National Book Award fiction shortlist. The ever-widening gap between what some people think we ought to read and what most of us would actually enjoy reading. I think the writer makes one interesting point in particular: In a culture dominated by film and television, all literary novels are so obscure as to be virtually invisible, and books that seem ubiquitous to people embedded in the publishing world are anything but to those who aren’t. (The next time you’re waiting for a bus, ask the person next to you if he or she has heard of Jeffrey Eugenides or “The Art of Fielding.” Hell, ask them if they’ve heard of Jonathan Franzen.) As I've said before, the proliferation of literary awards has been inversely proportional to the cultural significance of books. In other words, as books have become less important more awards have been created. Presumably there is a relationship between the two ie. that awards are being created in the hope of salvaging their declining cultural prestige. Which begs the question, what ought to be the role of literary awards, if salvaging the novel's status in the cultural marketplace clearly isn't working? If you ask any prize juror, they always say that they make their choice on the basis of merit alone. They try to identify the best book to bring it to the reading public's attention. But what's a 'best' book? I think that, increasingly, the reality is 'best' however you define it, has no relevance for most readers. Not the way it might have fifty years ago when novels enjoyed a certain cultural influence. And anyway, no one is ever going to convince me that a juror really reads all 150 novels submitted for any given prize in any given year (that's like reading a novel every two days for an entire year). If 'best' means nothing, than I vote for 'most enjoyable' cause that's about all any juror can honestly tell, and it's the only thing that most readers truly care about.

No comments: