Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Backward Prize

I’ve returned to the article in the Guardian about the Forward prize 2010 shortlist a few times, with increasing astonishment. It’s not the shortlists that astonish me, although three Faber books on the Best Collection list, perpetuating the myth that *of course* anything Faber publishes is automatically better than anything else, is worthy of a withering put-down by someone. But the whole article comprises of one piece of nonsense after another. First of all, the article begins:

“An expected clash between Nobel laureates Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott on the shortlist...has been averted”

Expected clash? Who expected such a clash? The judging panel includes Hugo Williams and Ruth Padel. Padel has made no comment on Walcott’s omission – unsurprising, I suppose. Williams couldn’t hold himself back:

“I read his first book when I was 18. I thought it a bit florid, and I've stayed with that."

This illustrates a serious problem with literary awards. Even people who enjoy Williams’s work can hardly expect him to be more than a footnote in a history of 20th century poetic achievement, itself a triumph, as most poets won’t merit even that. Walcott has a serious claim to be considered one of the 20th century’s greats. This doesn’t necessarily mean his new book is great (I haven’t read it, so can’t comment), but for his entire output to be dismissed as ‘florid’ by an inferior writer calls the whole award system into question. Walcott’s style is simply not plain, unadorned and prosy. Whatever one’s preference in those matters, judgements on a book surely ought to be made on how well an author writes in his/her own style rather than demanding it ape the favoured style of a judge.

But Williams isn’t finished. Asked who might win, he replied:

"I rather fancy Lachlan MacKinnon."

I have never known a judge, especially one who is part of a committee of five, to publicise his own choice weeks before the result is due. This is very poor form, I think. It might  help to explain the betting odds, for anyone who fancies a flutter:

9/4 Lachlan MacKinnon
5/2 Sinead Morrissey
3/1 Robin Robertson
4/1 Seamus Heaney
6/1 Jo Shapcott
8/1 Fiona Sampson

Finally, Williams has a go at publishers and emerging poets. There were 147 entries for the awards:

“That's too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out. I think it's something to do with the democratisation of everything – that everyone's got a right to get a book out ... I've got the feeling that sometimes it's more about desire than worth."

Well, you know, from a publishing perspective, it’s worth considering whether such an output is sustainable, given that it represents only a tiny fraction of poetry books published last year. Books need readers and buyers if small publishing houses are to keep their heads above water. A greater number of titles obviously require a greater number of readers (so reaching more readers is the difficult, but positive, answer). But Williams’s comments are absurdly negative. Would Williams have felt like this if he had just published his first collection? Are some of his collections more about desire than worth? Some might now be tempted to argue the case! Anyway, Andy Philip (well done to Andy, for his shortlisting in the Seamus Heaney prize, by the way) and Tania Hershman have both addressed the topic and it’s worth reading what they say.

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