The Politics of Prizes

A beaming Sam Elworthy was the enthusiastic host for “The  Politics of Prizes”. On the panel: birthday girl Stella RimingtonJenny Pattrick of Denniston Rose fame and “literary super-judge” New Zealander Stephen Stratford.

The panellists presumably accept the value of prizes as there was no discussion regarding the rationale behind prize giving, or the impact of elevating some titles over others. The discussion instead focused on the mechanics behind prizes such as The Man Booker and the New Zealand Post Book Awards.

The perfect short-list size?  The consensus was that 5 titles gave enough scope.

The qualities desirable in a judge? Stephen Stratford likes common sense judges from a variety of backgrounds and careers. “Academics are terrible judges”, he said, as they worry too much about their reputation. Stella Rimington quoted the Man Booker mandate “to appeal to average, intelligent readers” and the judges likewise she felt should be average, intelligent readers outside of the established literary milieu.

What are the challenges of being a judge or chair? Stella Rimington said the recruitment process for the panel “was like joining MI5, someone sidles up to you and says “pssst, do you want to be a judge?” ” Stephen Stratford aims to be in a compatible group and found it frustrating that initially there is so much secrecy about the panellists. He had to hide mountains of submitted books around his house so no one would twig he was a judge. Ok if your house is big but Elizabeth Smither has such a wee house that she eventually stopped letting any one through the front door! The role of Chairman both Rimington andStratford agreed is to keep an eye on factions,  prejudice and to ensure no single voice dominates the discussion.

What are the impact of prizes on sales? Stratford rearranged a few feathers when he declared that from the point of view of small town and mall-based booksellers there was very little. “WOFT” (Waste of F***ing Time) was the delightful phrase a “friendly, local bookseller” chum of his used but Stratford also acknowledged the situation may be different in “brainy book shops”

Rimington talked about the publicity machine surrounding the Booker prize and its need to generate controversy and therefore column inches. The 2011 Man Booker long-list, short-list and eventual winner Julian Barnes’s Sense of an ending were the highest selling titles of any previous year.

A one-eyed but highly entertaining look into the world of prize-giving.

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