Friday, December 13, 2013

Shades of Nonsense

13th December 2013

I wonder how you judge books for prizes. What is there in writing that is quantifiable in any way? Woody Allen never attends Oscar ceremonies. He says, "They're political and bought and negotiated for - although many worthy people have deservedly won - and the whole concept of awards is silly. I cannot abide by the judgment of other people, because if you accept it when they say you deserve an award, then you have to accept it when they say you don't." 
Allen has a point there. 
Yesterday they announced the judges for the new and re-vamped (expanded to the Americas) Mann Booker Prize, among them an American professor, an Oxford professor, a neuroscientist, a philosopher, an American critic, and the director of the British arts council. There are four men and two women - could they honestly not find another random person who happened to be female? Madonna? JK Rowling? Jane Goodall? Or did they just have to show that men know best when it comes to handing out prizes?
At any rate, in their gender-lobsidedness, their goal, as stated, is to pick "the very best work of literary fiction." They will whittle down the numbers to twelve in July of next year and then to six by September. You just wonder what the operating criteria are: buzz-worthiness? Surely now that the Booker prize has been extended to the Americas, we are not going to see Shades of Grey get any shades of recognition. Still, they don't want to pick anything too obscure, too unsold, no matter what its literary merit. The truth is that very often Booker Prizes like Pulitzer prizes go to authors that are never heard from again. If you look at the lists of winners through the years, hardly any are recognisable. How about Bernice Rubens, Stanley Middleton, Roddy Doyle, to name but a few?
Is the panel going for location, location, location? The prize is almost certainly going to go to an American writer next year, otherwise why expand the prize's geographical boundaries?  Shades of Grey might be brought out of the shadows for the literary spectacle that it is. Did I say, "literary"? How clumsy of me. Perhaps the panel might decide to show the world how terribly hip and in touch with the times it is. E.L. James, take out your black dress and diamonds! 
Fellow Scottish writer, A.L.Kennedy, who was a judge in 1996, called the prize "a pile of crooked 
nonsense" with the winner determined by "who knows who, who's sleeping with who, who's selling drugs to who, who's married to who, whose turn it is".  E.L. James, get out your notepad - there is a story here. Only you might have to call it "Shades of Nonsense." (A.L.Kennedy, it's "whom.")
I should probably have called myself C.R. McDougall to even be considered for a Mann Booker prize. I should definitely be sleeping with someone - mmm, decisions, decisions, the neuroscientist or the philosopher? But now I understand why there are four men and two women on the panel!
On another note, but a similar shade of nonsense - last month was National Novel Writing Month. The slogan?: "Thirty days and nights of literary abandon." It's a big notion and a big deal, too. Such notable books as "Water for Elephants," were composed during a month of literary abandon such as this. As if literary abandon were a place you could go, an urge with a destination similar to feeling like a burger and trotting off to McDonalds. "Literary abandon" is as silly a phrase as "Reading is sexy," which you hear bandied around these days. It's meant to provide some allure to people with otherwise little literary inclination. Reading isn't sexy.  It would be sexier to stay in the realm of possibility and engage with another human being. And writing might involve abandon, but there the similarity to sex ends.  All I can say is Freud must have been right - sex does sell, but it is only the idea of sex, just like these literary honours might just be the idea of literary perfection: it founders on the doorstep of the real world. 
It just makes writing sound like the mystical experience that it isn't, as though it is a romantic process, like writing on a valentine's card. There is just something in us that needs to think halos shine above the tellers of stories, above those who judge them. It makes us want to see the prizes as glittering, handed out by wizards, and not what they are: human, all too human. 
(N.B. If any lob-sided panel wants to give me one, I am willing to be shiny for a day!)

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