It's literary awards season! Well, kind of. Of course, the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded in the spring, and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) in early summer. But this week has felt like a Literary Prize Extravaganza, with the announcement of the shortlists for the National Book Award, and of course, the awarding of the Man Booker Prize. Here's the book that gets to have a sticker announcing it as the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner . . . .
Australian writer Richard Flanagan took home the prestigious prize for his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This got me thinking, because none of the readers I know, either in real life or in the blogosphere, have mentioned wanting to read this book. I haven't felt particularly compelled to pick up the novel myself. I have read a few critics' reviews of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and they have been mixed. Flanagan's story about Australian POWS during World War II who are forced into grueling slave labor by their Japanese captors sounds very bleak and brutal . . . maybe it's a novel that needed to be written, but I can't say that it's one I especially want to read.
Earlier this year, I was very interested in following the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. The shortlist this year was pretty darn stellar--Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, Audrey Magee's The Undertaking. I read all of those except The Lowland (although I've previously read and loved Lahiri, and I do hope to read it). But none of these books won the prize; the winner was this book:
Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is written in a stream-of-consciousness style. From what I've read, many readers have found the prose confusing and inaccessible, and the content to be an unrelentingly sad tale of betrayal and abuse. Ron Charles of The Washington Post wryly noted that McBride's book is an "extraordinarily demanding novel that will fascinate dozens of American readers." Dozens. Ouch. It may be very worthy, and perhaps it's important for experimental fiction to be recognized at times (in fact, I am sure that IS true), but I haven't noticed a tide of readers taking McBride's novel on since the Baileys prize was announced. I think I will be taking a pass on this one myself.
Now, I know that many factors go into the selection of the winners for a literary prize. Of course, I am not going to like all of the books selected as winners, and neither is any one individual reader. But these last couple of literary prizewinners did make me wonder how many readers out there consider the awarding of a literary prize to be something that influences their choice to read a book or not. And lately, has there been a disconnect between the prizewinning novels and what most readers actually want to read?
For myself, I will say that I DO pay attention to the literary prizes. It always interests me to know which books make the longlists and shortlists, and certainly which ones take home the prize. I've read many prizewinning novels over the past two decades, and I can count some of them as my favorite novels (for example, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto). Some other novels I've loved have made it to the shortlists of the big awards.
So I do pay attention . . . I usually at least read a description and a few reviews of every novel that makes it to the shortlist of one of the big literary prizes. This can be a great way to learn about novels that might be highly literary and deserving, but haven't experienced commercial success.
At the same time, clearly, winning a prize is not enough to make me read a novel. If a prize-winning novel strikes me as compelling, I will likely read it. But, as with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, simply winning the prize alone will not help the book find its way onto my bookshelf.
What about you . . . do the big literary prizes influence your reading choices, and if so, how?