The Guardian reports on the shortlist for this year's John Llewellyn Rhys prize, which is awarded to a writer aged under 35 for a work of fiction, non-fiction, drama, or poetry, has been announced – but contains no poetry or drama.
One of the judges, Peter Hobbs, talked about the submissions (which are made by publishers);
"There was very little poetry and drama at all," he said, suggesting that with big publishers restricted to three titles every year, it is difficult to reflect the diversity of their output. "It's partly market forces," he admitted, "the novel is what sells, much more than short stories, poetry and plays."
Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, responded;
"It's a bitter irony that awards have been subsumed into the battle for sales," she continued. "Literary prizes are one of the few things that might offset publishers' whims and the logic of the bottom line."
Publishers and booksellers already make decisions about which books to promote most heavily, she continued, and awards that only consider the books put forward by publishers will only replicate those decisions, giving shortlists the air of the three-for-two tables at the front of big bookshops. "Literary prizes ought to be leading the way, rather than responding to market forces," she added. "Prizes will have to change if they want to be taken seriously."
I couldn’t agree more. But there you have it. Publishers, understandably I suppose, note how prizes can greatly increase sales. They submit books they think will sell, given publicity, not the books they think are best. And poetry drops even further from the public eye because it doesn’t get onto the prominent displays that bookshops reserve for prize shortlists.
If publishers are able to submit three books each, it surely makes sense for the competition rules to insist that publishers must submit books from three of the four categories, ensuring that drama and poetry have a chance of a fair showing. But I don’t see that happening in a hurry.