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The proliferation of literary prizes

21 July 2008

Salman Rushdie's win of the Best of the Booker last week with Midnight's Children was no surprise. He had long been regarded as the quintessential Booker winner and had already won the Booker of Bookers in 1993. He was also a clear favourite with the members of the public who took part in the voting.

The past decade has seen the most extraordinary rise in the number and visibility of literary prizes. They come at us from every direction and seem to get bigger and more attention-grabbing all the time. The Booker itself has often been controversial and over the years has made a significant number of literary careers. Anne Enright last year was a case in point, a well-regarded but not well-known author who is now celebrated across the world.

The Orange Prize, controversial still because only novels written by women are eligible, has done much to democratise book prizes, as the judges have generally chosen accessible and well-written books which have had wide appeal, and the Prize has always been well-promoted.

Ireland's IMPAC Prize offers a superb 100,000 euros (£79,234 or $158,426) to its lucky winner and has done much to promote this year's winner, De Niro's Game, by Lebanese Canadian Rawi Hage, although the sales have not been all that spectacular. The Whitbread, now renamed the Costa Book Awards, has over the years done a fabulous job of promoting different genres, with its unusual two stage process giving prizes to a novel, a first novel, a children's book, a poetry book and a biography, as well as the overall winner.

The Nobel Prize for Literature offers huge international recognition and kudos, without perhaps always conferring the sales that its reputation might lead one to expect. That may be because its international and very literary nature means that the Prize is not really promoted in quite the same way. Some American prizes, such as the National Book Awards, have been accused of focusing too much on very literary books of narrow appeal.

Other prizes promote specific forms of literature. The Samuel Johnson Prize, announced last week, does a good job for non-fiction. The Crime Writers' AssociationA networking society for some 400 British crime writers (widely defined) and links to their sites. Membership for published writers only, but award a Debut Dagger for the best unpublished crime novel. Some articles from their magazine Red Herrings are posted on the site and there are links to many individual crime writers' websites. Dagger Awards in the UK and the Edgars in the US promote crime writing. And the T S Eliot, Griffin and Forward Prizes have over the years given much support to poetry.

Novelist Zadie Smith launched a stinging attack on literary prizes in February: 'Most literary prizes are only nominally about literature. They are really about brand consolidation for beer companies, phone companies and even frozen food companies.' This may be true, but the sponsorship of the beer companies and other backers does a tremendous amount to support literature and to ensure that good writers are more widely read.

Robert McCrum wrote recently in the Observer that: 'The literary prize has become one of the most reliable guides to the literary maze, a map to the perplexing contours of the book landscape.' At a time when newspaper reviews seem to be losing their impact, prizes give readers a compass to guide them to good reading.

Kate Mosse, founder of the Orange Prize says: 'Prizes, far more than star reviews, are what make books succeed now and it's also prizes that give readers the confidence to trust a new writer.' Readers are made to feel that the prize-winning book is something they should read. Winning a big prize can have a spectacular effect on a writer's career and everyone in the book world should celebrate the boom in this very effective means of promoting books.