Once more unto the breach.
The Shortlist is upon us. I protest I have not the time read them, yet I’ve never let this stop me from opining with gusto. I opine because literature is my life – qualification enough.
What’s interesting about this year’s shortlist isn’t only the titles that made it through, but those that didn’t: namely JM Coetzee and Elizabeth Strout. Lesser-to-unknown writers, of impressively eclectic range, leap-frogged right over them, which is the crux of my thesis.
I’ve been witnessed wailing and gnashing my teeth over slights to literary icons, frustrated it’s become fashionable to cry “entitlement” when the successful repeatedly excel. Is the purpose of literary awards not to honor the best of the best?
The purpose of literary awards is to honor the deserving. Politics and political correctness have no moral right to intervene.
And then there were 6:
News flash: literary icons get to the top through a hell of a lot of hard work. No one hands fame to undeserving writers. Strike that. Usually, undeserving writers don’t make it to award lists.
Okay. One hopes only the best rise to the top.
My argument against unknown writers eking through to the Shortlist is a nomination for the Man Bookers is a nod only a handful of writers will ever receive. Slapping “Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize” stickers on covers boosts sales. Boosting sales raises visibility. And when visibility rises, books get attention. And when books get attention, literary reputations are built. When literary reputations rise, the baton passes to the next generation of great writers.
In other words, they earn it the old fashioned way: writing highest-quality prose.
Honorary degrees and lifetime achievement awards are very encouraging. I know that it might sound strange that a writer who has published many books still needs encouragement, but this is true. – Joyce Carol Oates
Yet, I’m not blind to the other side. Underdogs are exciting; knowing the outcome of a contest is flat boring. This same eclectic group of Shortlisted writers have beaten the crowd, hand-picked by judges – I won’t get into the politics of judging – who winnowed from who knows how many others, until only these few remained.
Even great writers occasionally stumble: see the list of phenomenal first books whose authors never managed to repeat. I wouldn’t rule out lesser-known writers besting the best of the best. It’s happened, and in these cases previous fame should have no influence. When a writer falters, he deserves no credit for past success. Likewise, when a writer crushes it, accolades are imperative.
The weeding process must, of necessity, be brutal. Sub-par writing deserves no sympathy. It’s here the door’s left cracked for better efforts to squeak past. And it’s here I understand lesser-knowns rising.
“Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.” – Witold Gombrowicz
I cannot speak to the quality of Coetzee and Strout’s recent books. I have not read them. I know Coetzee to be a staggering talent, full stop. I’ve read several of his works, and know him as a giant. Even this should give him no advantage here.
Strout’s Olive Kitteridge fairly crushed it, but I know nothing of My Name is Lucy Barton. Could be she faltered, I do not know. But if she did, all’s fair in love and literature.
I have not read these six left standing. Reviews and blurbs make them all sound remarkable, but then they’re designed to sell.
Literary awards are not the only thing. Books are not defined by awards won. However, literary awards are in place to judge books that have achieved a level of excellence above the rest. It’s a thing apart. None of these books is unworthy, but only one of them is the best of this particular lot. And the one that’s nearest perfection, regardless of who wrote it – their color or gender or ethnic origin or previous fame or tough life story – should rightly win.
I’d say good luck to them all, but it should never be about luck. May the best win.