Sunday Salon: Do you read prize winners?

The Sunday Salon

On the back of this week’s announcement of the Booker Prize winner, I was wondering how much note people take of literary prizes. Are they just an excuse for bookshops to promote certain books? Or are they a valuable exercise in weeding out the best books from the thousands published each year?

I don’t follow any prizes closely enough to make a point of reading their long or shortlists every year, but there are certain prizes that have winners that tend to fit my taste. I find hype generally puts me off a book, but later I’ll come back to them and agree that the judges did a good job. And I do think it’s a great opportunity for small publishers to get their books out in the public eye and into all the bookshops, something they normally struggle with thanks to lack of the big bucks when it comes to marketing.

The [Man] Booker Prize
Launched in 1969, given to “the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland”. Of 47 winners, I have read 11 and have a further four in my TBR. (That may not sound like many but all the ones I’ve read were published within my lifetime.) And I have had several other books on the list recommended to me.

The [Orange] Women’s Prize for Fiction
Launched in 1996, given to “the best full-length novel written in English by a woman of any nationality”. Of 17 winners, I have read seven. I never used to pay that much attention but the last two winners have been two of the best books I have read this year – The Tiger’s Wife and Song of Achilles.

Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Launched in 1917, awarded for “distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life”. Of 85 winners, I have read nine and have one on my TBR, but again I have had several recommended to me. I keep meaning to pay more attention, but that clashes a little with my intention to look beyond the UK and US in my reading.

Hugo Award for Best Novel
Launched in 1953, awarded for “the best science fiction or fantasy novel published in English or translated into English during the previous calendar year”. Of 64 winners (including Retro Hugos), I have read nine but I think we (by which I mean mostly Tim) own at least half, probably the SF half. And that’s probably also how many I’ve had recommended to me (largely by Tim, who has probably read them all, or at least significantly more than me). I have to say I’m a little surprised that JK Rowling won it in 2001 (actually, I know for a fact that Tim hasn’t read that one). I was also surprised to see that the book I’m reading right now, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won it in 2008 (okay, Tim hasn’t read that one either). This is not mentioned anywhere on the book jacket. Had it been, I might have found myself less confused when it turned out to be an alternative history. I wonder why the publisher didn’t choose to publicize this, when they did do that awful three pages of quotes thing at the start.

Nebula Award for Best Novel
Launched in 1966, awarded for “the best science fiction or fantasy novel published in English or translated into English and released in the United States”. Of 48 winners, I have read seven. The winners overlap quite a lot with the Hugos. In fact, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union also won this award and again this is not advertised on the book jacket. Methinks the publisher (HarperCollins) doesn’t want people put off a “literary” author by the idea that he has written SF.

Clearly, my bias is for novels, mostly literary ones. I include those last two prizes not only because I am actively trying to read more science fiction, but also because I know it is often discussed that the big literary awards occasionally include historical or crime fiction but never science fiction, not even in the shortlists. There is a certain anti-SF snobbery.

So which prizes (if any) do you follow, and how closely? Do you read the whole longlist? Are you more likely to buy a book if it’s won a prize?

Man Booker winner: must-read item?

I’m a fan of the Booker Prize. It tends toward my personal taste and I have read and enjoyed many past winners, not to mention runners up. With my TBR pile teetering as high as it is I’m unlikely to rush out and buy this year’s winner, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobsen, but I will probably read it eventually.

All of which has got me thinking about book-buying habits. Would you buy a book just because it won a particular prize – e.g. the Orange Prize or the Hugo Award? Do you tend to buy books on a whim, maybe based on a combination of title, cover and synopsis? Do you only ever follow recommendations or stick to known authors? Do you possibly even read book reviews with the actual purpose of finding out about books you might like?

Personally I do all of the above, hence my TBR. None of them is guaranteed to lead to a great reading experience. My favourite books have come from all sorts of sources but I have also had recommendations, prizewinners and promising bookshop finds turn out to be a bit rubbish. Or at least, not to my taste.

The savage beast who’s innocent

Vernon God Little
by DBC Pierre

It’s Booker season again, and in honour of Tuesday’s announcement I thought I would read and review one of the former prizewinners from my TBR. This was the 2003 winner of the Man Booker Prize.

This book kind of smacks you in the face and forces you to keep reading. It’s rough, savage even, with the darkest of dark humour and language that reminded me of Hunter S Thompson or William Burroughs. But with more swearing.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it greatly. It didn’t take me long to read and I frequently laughed out loud. But I still felt a little bit like I’d been assaulted with someone’s secretest dirtiest fantasy. Disturbing. But funny.

The story is told by teenager Vernon Gregory Little whose best friend Jesus took a gun to school and massacred his classmates before killing himself. The only witness is so badly wounded he can’t speak, which means he can’t confirm that Vernon wasn’t there. A series of people and events bewilder Vernon into incriminating himself and soon the whole country is baying for his blood.

Vernon isn’t a sweet likeable misunderstood hero. He’s a foul-mouthed, judgemental, difficult, slimy piece of work who struggles to say anything coherent out loud and I didn’t empathise with him very often (though there was a bit of a reveal at the end that made me like him more). But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the way he describes his life, people and places. Some of the phrasing is actually quite beautiful, yet still distinctly him. There were some very original descriptions that I went back to re-read and even underlined, which I hadn’t done in years. Here’s one:

“A shimmer rises off the hood of Pam’s ole Mercury. Martirio’s tight-assed buildings quiver through it, oil pumpjacks melt and sparkle along the length of Gurie Street…all the money, and folk’s interest in fixing things, parade around the center of town, then spread outwards in a dying wave…Just a broken ole muffler shop on the outskirts; no more sprinklers, no more lawns.”

This kind of language isn’t all that easy to read at first but you soon get into it and it adds an awful lot to the characterisation. As long as you don’t mind lots of swearing.

Sometimes this book got so dark and twisted that I wondered if I was meant to take it as satire, rather than sort-of realistic storyline of bad shit getting worse, and to be honest that never became clear. Certainly the involvement of the media seemed more satirical than anything. It’s definitely humour aimed at the worse aspects of modern American society, including obesity, consumerism and lazy policing.

One thing that did concern me – there are two men in this book who turn out to be guilty of taking advantage of boys in their care and it is suggested that Jesus (a mass murderer) may have been gay. There are no other gay characters. Perhaps the implication was unintentional, but it has a pretty homophobic whiff about it. Of course, that could just be part of the world view of Vernon, who isn’t the most open-minded teenager.

For a book with such a coarse, not particularly bright narrator, this is a clever book with some subtle plot development (no, really) and it definitely deserves the outpouring of praise and prizes it got.

Published 2003 by Faber and Faber.