Book Awards: What’s the Point?

There are now only two, short days remaining before the judges of The Man Booker Prize 2018 announce the winner of this year’s competition. This means that, after months of waiting, the author of one of the six shortlisted titles will be walking away with one of the most prestigious literary awards available to the English-speaking world – along with the £50,000 cash prize that comes with it.

SabrinaYet the release of this year’s shortlist, and the subsequent rejection of some of the most popular longlisted titles, which included Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina and Belinda Bauer’s Snap, has caused many readers to question the reliability of this award. After all, Sabrina is the first graphic novel that The Man Booker Prize judges have ever considered, and its inclusion in this year’s longlist had many of us believing that respected literary establishments were coming to accept less traditional modes of storytelling.

We were disappointed.

Sabrina was just one of the popular titles to be excluded from this year’s shortlist, revealing a disparity between the books which people enjoyed, and those which were shortlisted. For many, this has suggested that the judges’ assessment criteria may not be in line with what the consumer market actually wants. Sian Cain considers this frustrating truth in a recent Guardian article:

[T]here is a stark gap between what the judges have chosen to go through to the final stage, and what readers have actually been buying. This year’s Booker bestsellers have so far been Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, Bauer’s Snap, Rooney’s Normal People and Drnaso’s Sabrina. None survived the latest cull (par. 3).

What, then, do book award judges consider when they choose a winning title? It cannot be a book’s popularity, or else Drnaso’s work would never have been excluded from the shortlist of The Man Booker Prize. Is it then dependent on the storytelling, and how powerful a narrative is? Or do the judges consider how thought-provoking a book is?

According to The Man Booker Prize website, the purpose of the award is to seek out “the best novel of the year written in English and published in the UK” (par. 1), yet what does this mean? What makes a novel “the best”?

From a consumer’s perspective, a book will arguably be prized for its storytelling, along, perhaps, with a strong writing style and good character development. An author, on the other hand, may value a book for its financial success, its popularity, or perhaps how well it presents their original intentions. Agents and publishers, meanwhile, may rate a book on its ability to sell, and on the economic capital that it can provide.

With so many differing perspectives, it seems impossible to determine what “the best” book would be, and yet this is exactly the purpose of book awards such as The Man Booker Prize. James English suggests that this ambiguity is due to the origins of such awards, which he argues are products of “consumer society run rampant” (2). He suggests that, at the roots of every book prize – at least from an etymological perspective – are the monetary exchanges that define our society.

We That Are YoungYet even if this were the case, and if these awards were designed to suit our consumerist society, there is no denying that we value them. Even though they may be ambiguous, money-centric transactions, and even though it is difficult to determine how such awards are granted, it cannot be denied that we, as consumers, are more likely to buy a book that has been shortlisted for an award, than a book by a new author with no prizes to their name. This is because the awards seem to provide a certain credibility that we register when we make the decision to buy a book.

This credibility has been demonstrated by Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, the recent winner of the Desmond Elliott and Republic of Consciousness prizes. Published by Beggar Galley Press, a small publishing house, this book has exceeded all expectations, and, after winning various book awards, it has arguably become the most successful novel that has ever been published by Beggar Galley Press.

The book’s paratexts flaunt this success, and, when you pick up a copy of We That Are Young, the mention of book awards is the first thing that you will see. More than anything else, the success and consequent design of We That Are Young prove the importance of book awards. They may often be presented as ambiguous, and they may not always match public opinion. Yet even despite this, book awards do seem to have a very vital function in our society, and this is not only, as James English would claim, to suit a “shallow”, consumerist world. English was right in thinking that these awards represent “stardom and success”, but this “stardom” is what helps us understand the publishing industry, and what guides us in our decision to purchase one book over another.

So, whilst this may be a flawed system, it’s clearly an important one.


This post was written for one of my university modules. You can learn more about these posts here.

Some of you may have noticed that I have been posting less over the past week. This is simply because I have been really busy with all my work for university. What this means is that I’m suspending some weekly posts (such as “My Monday Message” and “The Friday 56”) during this busy period. I will still be posting, just not as often!

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