Literary Prizes SUCK

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On September 1st, we will be announcing the shortlists for the 2010 eight cuts gallery prize for best literature and Chris Al-Aswad Prize for best contribution to breaking down barriers in the arts. In order to whet the appetite for what, I hope you’ll agree, are some truly truly amazing things, this seems like a good time to say something about literary prizes.

Last month, on my personal blog, I wrote a piece about prizes and publication that was both angry and frustrated. What I was angry and frustrated at was literary prize land and its bizarre definition of publication (if you’re self-published you’re not published enough for the Booker; so much as interweb your stuff and you’re too published for the Bridport – whatever you do, if you don’t do it through the accepted and acceptable channels, you’re not even on the radar).

Of course, moaning about the Booker isn’t new. Sam Jordison writes an excellent Not The Booker Prize blog for the Guardian celebrating some of the forgotten books. But even they are forgotten but acceptable books.

It’s often said that there’s not enough excitement about our great prizes – the Booker, the Costa, the Orange et al.. On the other hand, they DO sell books, and that’s kind of the problem. The prizes are part of the establishment and the establishment sells its books through the prizes. And so the same old same old continue to win the same old same old to the benefit of the same old same old. And everyone wonders why no one outside that closed world gives a flying…

The establishment needs to make its mind up – does it want its prizes to sell the same kind of narrowly defined safe literature it churns out, occasionally giving it the pretence of saying “look, this is new” about something else dull and original that the pulsing underground heart of creativity moved on from years ago? Or does it want to celebrate the best literature and accept the fact that means it will have to wade the slush? The best shade of beige, or a bright burning colourful rainbow amid a storm of crud? My issue is that literary prizes have plumped again and again for the latter – but pretend to the world through their media mouthpieces to be championing the latter. Is it any wonder people think books are a bit the same, and not really interesting enough?

This is why I set up eight cuts gallery press – to force the mainstream prizes to take a look at some of the “other” stuff out there. I’m sure they’ll find a way of discounting us, of chucking us out, but we WON’T go away and take it quietly. We WILL keep haranguing the media to write about the hypocrisy of major prizes, and the resulting blandness the public is fed as being the best of the best. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t but it’s time for someone to make a forceful, impassioned but rational and courteous case for some honesty – for the establishment to admit they are choosing their laureates from a VERY narrow pool; for the establishment to admit that the vast omitted, silenced, censored unseen may contain some dross, but is also the place for the public to look for the REAL cutting edge, for the very very best; for someone to open the door and give the public a place to come to have a peek at the unseen freaks. Which is the sentiment of our mission statement at eight cuts gallery. And the sentiment behind the eight cuts gallery literary prize.

You can help us in our mission in several ways.

  • click “share” at the bottom of our posts and tell everyone what they’re doing
  • read the amazing works we shortlist
  • if you have a blog, the next time you think about reviewing the new Ian McEwan, review something we’ve shortlisted instead
  • tell the prizes what they’re getting wrong – comment on the blogs about them in the mainstream media, point them and their readers in our direction

Most of all

  • if you find something brilliant, tell us about it for next year – we only have so many hours in the day. The last thing we want to do is rely on publishers – we need you to tell us

So – what’s the best new literature you’ve encountered in the last year?

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11 Responses to Literary Prizes SUCK

  1. In the arts, people bow to established critics, or authorities who define taste, rather than have confidence in their own judgement. Yet as time moves on, many of those acclaimed by today’s critics will fall by the wayside, and seem as dull and predictable as yesterday’s heroes (Walter de la Mare or John Drinkwater). You know how wine buffs have blind tastings? I’d like to see an experiment where literary critics were forced to sample work of unknown origin – some of it alternative, some published – and pronounce on merit. Someone like Penny Goring would beat all-comers. And let’s have literary prizes conducted like anonymised marking in the universities – anonymity stops expectations distorting the outcome.

    • danholloway says:

      Anonymity is a tricky one, isn’t it? It happens with some of the big short story competitions – the problem is that the papameters are so tight and the judges are always chosen from a narrow pool. I know people say you can’t judge things that are too disparate, but for me that’s one of the strengths of, say, the Turner Prize – once you compare ANY two pieces you are accepting the principle. With novels it would be trickier because judges would be second-guessing, and the pre-publicity machines would render it impossible. So, practically there’d be problems but I do agree the real problem always is that people go into awards with preconceptions about the winner, and that narrows and narrows things.
      I think what you say about people trusting their own judgment is so important – and so rare in the arts.

      • You’re right, it wouldn’t work as a way to judge competitions for novels. Might work as an experiment, but few literary judges/critics would expose themselves to the test, for the same reason many university staff opposed anonymised marking. So we have to find other ways to challenge the iron grip of expectations — which is where your press comes in?

  2. Olibama says:

    Will the booker let you in?

    Most people in this world need to be told what is good. I have no evidence for this.

    • danholloway says:

      yeah, they’ll let us in the first door at least. And once we’re in we’ll be more tenacious than a double glazing seller. You may be right, but the problem is people are always told the same stuff is good. They never know the rest of it even exists

  3. Marcella says:

    But isn’t it incredibly expensive to enter the Booker?

  4. yearzerowriters says:

    when do entries go in for the Booker?

    What other prizes are you aiming at?

    If you look at past winners of these prizes, can you see any of the books you’ve liked? It’s just like the oscars, they can pick decent films sometimes, but most of the time they ignore stuff i liked. Grosse Pointe Blank, for one. And Dazed and Confused. And Dark City. When will they ever learn to pick stuff that I like…

  5. Cody James says:

    If there was any justice in prizes, About Schmidt would have won every single Oscar, and they would have awarded every literary prize to Lautreamont, post-humously.

    Having said that, I fully intend to win the Booker.

  6. Pingback: eight cuts gallery prize | eight cuts

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