Is a new Literature Prize to re-establish standards necessary?

An array of agents, writers, scouts, literary critics and publishers are backing a new literary award (announced on Wednesday – 12.10.11) but names are being kept under wraps. It is said the advisory committee will be announced within the next fortnight and, funding permitted, the prize could be up and running as early as 2012.

The award, named rather simply The Literature Prize, has been set up to “establish a clear and uncompromising standard of excellence”, with the advisory board claiming that the Man Booker Prize no longer does the job.

The board, for which agent Andrew Kidd of Aitken Alexander is spokesperson, said the prize “will offer readers a selection of novels that, in the view of these expert judges, are unsurpassed in their quality and ambition.”

The board said: “For many years this brief was fulfilled by the Booker (latterly the Man Booker) Prize. But as numerous statements by that prize’s administrator and this year’s judges illustrate, it now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement. We believe though that great writing has the power to change us, to make us see the world a little differently from how we saw it before, and that the public deserves a prize whose sole aim is to bring to our attention and celebrate the very best novels published in our time.”

The Literature Prize will be awarded to the best novel written in the English language and published in the UK, with the writer’s country of origin not a factor (comparatively the Booker is only open to those from the British Commonwealth and Ireland).

This year’s Man Booker shortlist drew criticism for its omission of much-praised novels including Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child and Edward St Aubyn’s At Last, with the judges saying “readability” had been high on their list of priorities in making their choices. It is said that although partly inspired by the controversial nature of this year’s Man Booker shortlist, conversation on the new prize has been flowing for a few years.

So there are the facts, but what do you think? Do you believe the Booker priorities the notion of ‘readability’ over ‘artistic achievement’ and that challenging books are no longer considered? Or do you believe the Booker already puts literary excellence and readability hand in hand?  Also, is there any way the two prizes can live harmoniously together or will they sit forever as rivals, creating a divide amongst readers and writers alike?

3 thoughts on “Is a new Literature Prize to re-establish standards necessary?

  1. Ruth White

    I agree completely with you Heather, and think the accusation that judges put populism over genuine quality is extremely unfair!

    There’s a great piece online today from the Guardian

    Julian Barnes himself said the “readability” row had been “a false hare” to which he had paid little attention, adding: “Most great books are readable. Any shortlist of the last ten years that I’ve read has contained nothing but what you would call readable books.”

    He also offered some advice to publishers in his acceptance speech: “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”

    Is this not a more important argument than the petty accusations that are being thrown around? While we’re talking about what is readable, the fact of making sure real books on real paper are kept in circulation is certainly high up of my list of priorities to so called ‘readability’ …

  2. Heather Douglass

    This question divides me against myself. On the one hand, writing that asks more effort is writing that breaks through conventions, which art should do. James Joyce is not readable, but thank God he wrote!

    On the other hand, readable fiction reaches more people. I am happy for both awards, because both jobs need to be done.


  3. Bob

    It was interesting to hear last Friday’s BBC 2 Review Show panellists on this topic. I have to agree with Joanne Harris who said, ‘readability is surely a prerequisite for books, otherwise what are they for?’

    From a crime fiction perspective it always used to be said that a crime novel would never win you the Booker Prize, but in recent years Tom Rob Smith and AD Miller have made the long- and short-lists respectively with their intelligent thrillers. I suspect its this kind of development which has caused some members of the literary establishment to come to the conclusion that the Booker simply isn’t elite enough anymore. But to think so is to do a huge disservice to the recent winners of the prize. No one can deny that Hilary Mankell’s ‘Wolf Hall’ isn’t a towering literary achievement or that Alan Hollinghurst is not a truly great novelist.