21st Century Literature discussion

Question of the Week > What Makes For A Great Literary Contest? (4/7/19)

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message 1: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2824 comments Mod
Is there an ideal book prize out there? If so, what features does it have? If you were designing your ideal contest, what would it entail?

message 2: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2802 comments Mod

message 3: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2824 comments Mod
Are you advocating for eliminating all literary contests, Hugh?!!

message 4: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2802 comments Mod
No, but they are all inherently flawed because they are judged by humans, and there are too many books for humans to read, so they are inevitably coloured by what publishers submit, and what reviewers have heard of.

I follow plenty of prizes these days, but I tend to find that the more I read, the more I disagree with the decisions. Mind you, I am quite sure my choices wouldn't be any more popular...

message 5: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2824 comments Mod
That's why I asked what contest each person would design as their ideal (never mind posterity, other readers, etc.).

I think each contest tends to serve a mostly positive purpose for all involved accepting that they are subjective.

message 6: by Lia (new)

Lia Hugh wrote: "No, but they are all inherently flawed because they are judged by humans, and there are too many books for humans to read, so they are inevitably coloured by what publishers submit, and what review..."

But books are written for human readers... would books being purely processed by machines and algorithms be an improvement? 😱

I agree there are way too many books being published, so many that the chance of having conversations about them is diminishing small, even on the Internet.

I think lit contests are great if they generate publicity, controversies, common interests (even if it’s merely common interests in dissing a book or a prize or an author or movement or style etc etc.) It doesn’t really matter if they don’t pick the books I prefer, as long as they generate enough interests so that there are people who might listen to why I think these books aren’t the best and are willing to engage and discuss/debate and think about what makes books great today.

message 7: by Hugh (new)

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2802 comments Mod
Lia wrote: "would books being purely processed by machines and algorithms be an improvement?"
Of course not, but the fact remains that the smaller the pool of books a prize can be limited to, the more it becomes a fair contest.

To be fair my initial response was slightly tongue-in-cheek. I like the Booker prize, and have always found it interesting, but the big publishers have far too much say in what gets submitted, often to the detriment of books from outside Britain, Ireland and the United States. I like the Goldsmiths and the Republic of Consciousness prizes too, but both of these have much stricter restrictions on what can be entered.

message 8: by Lia (new)

Lia Marc wrote: "I think each contest tends to serve a mostly positive purpose for all involved..."

I *have* been reading The Shape of the Ruins and maybe I’m getting too tin-foilish, but my understanding is that literary contests frequently served the elites or political organizations that can fund them — like those pesky Roman Emperors, or CIA during the Cold War...

Which is tangentially related to what Hugh was saying — lit contests always unevenly excludes some groups and privileges others, and they very often are that way for political reasons (even if we don’t recognize them as political when we are within that milieu.)

Now I sound like I’ve moved so far from the “idealist” camp that I flew past Hugh’s realism and fell into the ditch of cynicism!

message 9: by Marc (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2824 comments Mod
Politics and money have always been a part of publishing--I don't think that's going to change any time soon.

The Republic of Consciousness recently awarded two winners and mentioned the possibility of multiple winners in future years. I had a negative gut reaction to this and my mind immediately jumped to seeing it as handing everyone participation prizes. I do think if you're going to have a contest, it's more exciting to have one winner (I'm not opposed to runner-up prizes). Otherwise, it just starts to turn into a list... (Top 4, Top 10, Top Whatever... and don't get me started about how esoteric and temporally-short some lists are getting; e.g., Top 12 Books About Therianthropy Published Since 3pm Yesterday)...

message 10: by Lia (new)

Lia I have mixed feelings about that decision too, I worry that the other authors are going to feel humiliated, like it’s not that they weren’t the best, but rather, they weren’t good enough to qualify for participation prizes.

But, I stand by what I said about controversies ... I don’t have access to the two victors yet, but I plan to read both as soon as I can get my paws on them, to see if they really truly are so equally good that the judges couldn’t possibly choose one over the other. I’m hoping the time (and maybe money) spent would eventually pay off in many many debates for decades...

message 11: by David (new)

David | 242 comments I don't take book awards very seriously. For a number of awards I use the lists of books nominated as suggested reading lists. If there are books and authors on those lists I have not heard of before (which is usually most of the books listed), I will find out more about them and use that as a basis to decide whether or not to read them. The difference between a book that only makes a longlist, one that makes the shortlist, and the book that wins is pretty inconsequential to me. In general I have no rooting interest with books and awards.

The book I most recently finished reading (West by Carys Davies), the book I am currently reading (Songs For The Cold Of Heart by Eric Dupont) and the collection of short stories I am also reading now (The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg by Deborah Eisenberg) are all books I would not have picked up had I not been checking out award nomination lists, so they are of great value to me. I just don't care about who wins the prizes.

message 12: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2395 comments I enjoy book prizes. Those that come with longlists are fun because of the introduction to new books and the occasional recognition of books I think are great. Hugh is right, of course, that with human judges the short lists or the winners are not always the best written but represent a compromise pick or advance a political purpose that the panel had. All sorts of extraneous things might influence judges or one judge might just more convincingly sell the book she or he wants to win. But book awards do provide book lovers and book readers with great fodder for debate and discussion.

I don't think there is a perfect book award or that there could be such a thing. Narrowly defined criteria help determine which books qualify but that might remove the element of surprise.

message 13: by Robert (new)

Robert | 452 comments I don’t think that there’s a perfect award contest but there are strong longlists. It’s a matter of finding that longlist which suit you. For example this years wp was much better than this years MBI but last year it was the opposite

message 14: by Lily (last edited Apr 08, 2019 08:27PM) (new)

Lily (joy1) | 2503 comments Many of you know that I am one of those that advocates that if we are going to be choosy readers from among book awards, one of the factors to which we need to pay more attention is the judges -- what are the qualifications (and vested interests) they bring to the job they are doing. But, to be honest, who among us has the time to find out about the qualifications of authors, let alone of literary judges?

message 15: by C I N D L E (new)

C I N D L E (cindle) Because awards like these are subjective, I don't expect that chosen winners for literary awards will truly ever be "the best," or "the most distinguished" fiction for the corresponding year. What I do expect however is for the chosen winner to be exceptionally written, superseding all literary criterion/expectations of quality. When this is not the case, then it cheapens the award itself.

That 'Less', by Andrew Sean Greer, won the top prize for fiction last year left me questioning the Pulitzer committee's thinking process and the committee's motives. My opinion, but that in 2018 the Pulitzer for fiction was awarded to a sub-par, infantile, banal, out of touch writing style that had zero verve, tells me that top quality may not always be what literary award committees are awarding every year.

Incidentally, for those who have not yet read it, there is a paragraph on page 97 of 'Less', which attempts to explain why certain works may win over other works that are more deserving of awards. The titular character Arthur Less' former lover is a Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer finalist for poetry, who tells Arthur Less the following as they ready to attend the Pulitzer awards ceremony:

"Prizes aren't love. Because people who never met you can't love you. The slots for winners are already set, from here until Judgement Day. They know the kind of poet who's going to win, and if you happen to fit the slot, then bully for you! It's like fitting a hand-me-down suit. It's luck, not love."

The line "...fit the slot..." is what some literary award winners feel like some years, especially in the case of Greer's 'Less.' I did not expect 'Less' to be the best written/published novel of 2018, but I at a minimum expected it to be exceptionally written, which it was not. They gave it the Pulitzer for fiction anyway.

So to answer your question, Marc, I don't know if there is an ideal literary prize out there. The above was a fictional character musing about literary awards, but if it were to be understood for what the character was saying, it proves that all literary award winners really are just "fitting a slot" for that corresponding year. Because really, how can we, in the hundreds of thousands of books that are published yearly, how can anyone or any committee pick out THE BEST one. And even when they had the opportunity to pick one that should have at a minimum been an exceptional example of prime literature, they dropped the ball and drunkenly, inexplicably, awarded it to something like 'Less'.

It is bleak to say, but perhaps an ideal literary prize does not exist. If this is true, then in its place, "slots" are simply being filled every year. It is what it is.

To be honest, I'm not this cynical about literary awards, since I do depend on them for potential reading material. Except in the case of 'Less', I do hold finalists and some winners to high esteem. Additionally, there have been multiple past winners that I agree with fully. Nonetheless, the fictional poet gave me much to think about because in a sort of backwards meta, he proved his point for the very book of the author who created him and wrote the statement in the first place.

With all that said, I'm excited for next Monday April 15th to see the winners. I believe I might have some potentials already on my to-read list.

message 16: by Lark (new)

Lark Benobi (larkbenobi) | 237 comments The best awards are those that bring attention to books that are terrific and don't have a big marketing budget. (Like the Republic of Consciousness Prize!)

The others seem pretty useless to me, at best, and at worst they are reductive and harmful because they drive sales toward the lucky winner, when it's so clear the winner is just lucky, not better.

Literary prizes used to be how I filtered what I read but now I follow conversations in Goodreads groups and read reviews of the friends I've found here, to discover what to read next--there are wonderful readers on GR who think deeply about literature, and who read widely.

Nadine in California (nadinekc) | 472 comments I always consider each award as part of the larger universe of all awards, so who wins or loses any one of them doesn't upset me as a reader. Some awards are popularity contests, like the Hugo, and others are so esoteric (to me) that I'm not usually interested in their winners. I just want them to point me to titles I wouldn't otherwise have found.

Reading tastes differ, and vive la difference. I LOVED Less especially because I thought the writing was simultaneously unfussy and exquisite and was amazed that the author managed to square that circle!

message 18: by Marc (last edited Apr 08, 2019 07:23PM) (new)

Marc (monkeelino) | 2824 comments Mod
Like many of you, it's the nomination lists (long or short) that usually interest me and bring attention to works or authors I might not have discovered on my own. Typically, I don't usually care who wins, but I'm usually interested in at least a few nominated for the Booker, the Hugos, the Republic of Conscious, the Women's Prize, the Neustadt, etc. Although, not another single book could be published and I'd feel like I had enough to choose from happily for the rest of my life (however short or long that proves to be).

I tend to like prizes that reveal harder to discover works (small presses, translations, etc.). I almost never pay attention to the judges (I am more likely to pick up a book recommended by a favorite writer than I am one nominated for a prize; but if a favorite writer is a judge than that does up my interest).

I don't usually pay much attention to the Pulitzer, so maybe my expectations for Less were not that high, but I was rather impressed.

I think my ideal (as in catered entirely to my own reading interests) contest would have several award categories (judges for each category would be my top five favorite authors--living or dead--in those categories):
- Best Fiction
- Best Translation
- Best SciFi/Fantasy
- Best Graphic Novel
- Best Short Story Collection
- Best Poetry

Shortlist of 5 for each category with shortlist award of $10K apiece.
Winner in each category gets $100K. Prize funded indefinitely by untaxed wealth seized from any illegal assets identified in the Panama Papers. I'm flexible--if all countries transferred 5% of their defense budgets each year toward the prize, or supporting literature, for the next 10 years, I'd leave the illegal assets alone (for now).

message 19: by LindaJ^ (new)

LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2395 comments Marc, you really took your question seriously. Nicely designed structure. Now, please define what constitutes "best" for you?

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