I’m not sure how I first came into contact with Dawn Tindle, the brains behind Book & Brew, but this year we’ve bumped into each other at countless book events and I like to think we’ve become bookish friends. Dawn’s dedication to literature is really inspiring and I love the articles she posts on her site.
Here’s Dawn sharing her thoughts on literary prizes. Thanks to Dawn for being involved today.
Literary prizes: are they for readers or for authors?
By Dawn Tindle
The literary calendar is full of prizes honouring the great and good of the book world. From specialist awards to international accolades, prizes recognise authors who push the boundaries of literature to create new narratives for their generation. But, who are they really for? The reader or the author?
Books and brews
My book group, Book and Brew, started in January 2015 and we’ve met every last Sunday of the month since in Pink Lane Coffee. We started as five but have grown to seven. We huddle around the distressed (hipster) table with our favourite brews (they range from Americano to white hot chocolate) and (not so) healthy breakfasts (red velvet cake, croissants, bagels, sometimes toast) to discuss our latest read.
We are fairly like-minded when it comes to our taste in books but there is always a lively discussion about the text in hand. Would we read something by the author again? What did we learn from it? Did this book stay with us long after we had read it? Did the author keep us gripped or did we finish just because we had a book club deadline? All valid questions that get their fair share of the typically two-hour debate.
Meeting monthly has helped us all hone our critical skills. Sharing our thoughts on the books is a really valuable experience, both in terms of developing our own confidence in shaping and presenting our ideas, and because we get to consider the book from a different perspective with every comment offered by our members.
We didn’t know it, but the last year of reading and reviewing was training for some pretty import roles to come.
Becoming official readers
The Reading Agency is a fabulous charity that promotes the joy of a good book. They have a fantastic website called Reading Groups for Everyone that has resources, competitions and reviews to inspire and support book clubs. I registered Book and Brew with the site very early on and still use it to source freebies from publishers keen to get book clubs’ opinions on their latest titles (check out the noticeboard section if you’ve not already – it’s a hidden gem for review copies of books).
So, when I saw a feature on the site asking for book clubs to shadow the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction I signed us up. There’s nothing to lose, right? There’ll be loads of clubs entering so little old us up in Newcastle won’t have a look in, will we?
Well, we bloomin’ did. I got an email in May to say we’d been chosen as one of only 12 groups in the country to shadow the prize, and would receive a box full of The Portable Veblen to review. Sweet!
Our Baileys gig was so successful that we were picked again in August to shadow none other than the Man Booker Prize 2016, one of (if not the most) prestigious literary prize of the year. This time we were one of six clubs to be selected. Not bad, eh?
We were clearly doing something right. But what was it?
Hashtags, retweets and online stalking
The role of a shadow judging group is to read your given book prior to the prize announcement. Each member of the club reads the book, shares their thoughts on social media and then we all get together to discuss our views on the novel before logging our reviews on the Reading Groups for Everyone website. Using the prize hashtags and Twitter handles means you get attention from all kinds of people who are also following the prize, and you get to join conversations with bookworms you didn’t even know existed.
If you follow me on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram you’ll know I’m obsessed with taking pictures of books next to an assortment of hot beverages, as well as pretty book stuff in general. So is the rest of the book club, and our social media feeds during shadowing duties are packed with pictures, quotes, comments and content about the book.
It’s this passion for books that keeps getting us shadowing roles. We are utterly thrilled if an author likes our tweets – there is something magical (and quite meta) about the author of the book you’re reading knowing you’re reading it. It’s even more exciting when they read our reviews and thank us for commenting on their work. Reviewing someone’s book is not easy – especially when you know how much of an author’s heart and soul goes into their writing – so it’s nerve-wracking to produce a critique you know the author, their publisher, The Reading Agency and anyone else following the prize could see. But, so far, all of our comments have been received gracefully. Phew!
We’re not professional reviewers, and we’re not analysing the books to examine which ideologies they purport or what faction of the literary cannon they are subverting or supporting. We just give honest reviews. We love books – they sustain us, entertain us and enrich us – and we’ll shout very loudly about the ones we admire.
Does it really matter?
With every book prize comes the inevitable media coverage about their worth. Do we still need a women-only prize in the 21st century? Yes, if you look at the divide between the number of titles commissioned by female and male writers.
Is it just a marketing tool to increase the sales of the big publishers? Yes, sometimes but the little guys are increasingly getting their share of the pie.
Are they just pretentious, back-patting events for the London literati? They can be but that’s changing, too.
I recently attended the announcement of the Gordon Burn Prize on the first night of this year’s Durham Book Festival. The nominees sat patiently on the stage for the Q&A and were asked by the chair whether literary prizes are important. The room went silent. No one answered. A few of them shuffled nervously in their seats, swapped over their crossed legs, recrossed their arms. Seconds felt like minutes as not one of the authors said anything. Then the room burst into laughter. I wasn’t sure if the authors were being very British in their modest reluctance to extol the virtues of being elevated above their peers, or if they were genuinely struggling to answer the question. Obviously, saying prizes don’t matter when you’re at a prize-giving event would not go down well, but the fact that none of them were forthcoming with a positive response really made me think about the prize process.
Some authors will lap up the attention, while others will shy away from it. Sales will rocket until the prize is announced when they’ll slowly trickle back down the charts. The prize winner will have their fifteen minutes (or two-book deal) of fame while the shortlisted nominees go back to their writing desks. It’s all part and parcel of any process in which only a few writers and books are selected for attention above the thousands of others printed in the same year.
Whether an author views prize giving as prestigious or painful, I guess, is up to them and their level of comfort in the spotlight. What I do know, however, is that book prizes are a wonderful thing for readers. And shadow judging them is even more special.
We’ve read more books than ever (we usually try to get through the full shortlist before the prize is announced), we’ve talked to more authors than before, we’ve engaged with more bookworms than we ever thought possible, and we’ve been retweeted by publishers countless times. We’ve become better reviewers, more confident in our critiques, and our debates are more eloquent and considered.
Our experience as shadow judges and the response from the nominees at the Gordon Burn Prize leads me to one conclusion: literary prizes may be enjoyed more by readers than by authors.