Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Everyone's Third Choice Wins

A nicely balanced WaPo article on book prizes—the Pulitzer, the Booker, and the like. It captures a lot of the ambivalence I tend to hear about prizes: they boost an author's profile, give librarians and bookstore employees something to recommend, lend strength to a publishing program, and sometimes baffle everyone involved:

Publishers love winning prizes because a strong backlist is their bread and butter, but it doesn't follow that they take the awards too seriously. "When the judges choose your book, you think they're geniuses," says Simon & Schuster's Rosenthal, "and when they don't, you think they're drinking too much Jack Daniels or smoking bad weed or something." His wry ambivalence is hardly unique. "Crapshoot," "lottery," "game" and "joke" are words that recur often in discussions about prizes, even among jurors. A closer look at the judging suggests why.
Often, when a prize is announced, a certain segment of the population will vocally wonder "Who gives these things out, anyway? They may well ask:

Two-time Booker fiction panel head John Carey, an emeritus professor of English at Oxford and chief book reviewer for the London Sunday Times, remembers a "not particularly literary" individual who, once chosen for the jury, asked Carey to lunch to learn what makes a good book.
I'm not certain I agree with James English, entirely, but I do see his point:

People familiar with the publishing industry can't help but see the prizes "if not as a joke, then an error-riddled and rather embarrassing sideshow," in the words of James English, chairman of English at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on cultural prizes. Part of the problem lies in the arithmetic of compromise. For the Booker Prize, for example, each juror ranks the finalists, says Carey, and the prize goes to the book with the lowest (best) average score.
Embarrassing or not, the article makes it clear that those most intimately involved with the publishing industry—the authors and publishers—are quite happy to capitalize on the publicity, notoriety, and increased interest that winning a major literary prize brings.

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