Why Literary Prizes Matter…

16 May 2012

The winner of the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction will be announced on Wednesday 30th May at London’s Royal Festival Hall, following an event showcasing the six novels on Tuesday 29th May and a celebration of new writing staged in association with Grazia on Monday 28th May. These two events before the Prize itself are part of the OPF’s remit both to celebrate established writers and to give a platform for those starting out on their careers.

When the OPF shortlist was announced at the London Book Fair in April, several of the novels shortlisted went into the charts – both the Bookseller‘s Heatseekers Chart and the Independent Bookshop chart. For most authors, visibility is key to a book’s success. There’s a great deal published and although bookshops, online retailers and supermarkets often stock the same selection of titles, it is still hard for readers to know what to try, what not. Most of us, in these time-poor times, tend to stick to favourite authors unless word-of-mouth or the recommendation of family and friends suggests we try something new.

This is why Prizes continue to be so important. The fabulous first week hardback sale of Hilary Mantel‘s latest novel, Bring Up the Bodies, is testament to how winning a prize (in Mantel’s case, of course, winning the Man Booker for Wolf Hall) transforms sales. Readers are ready and waiting! This week, too, the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize was announced – the octogenarian writer Aharon Appelfeld for Blooms of Darkness. By virtue of winning, a new generation of readers will be introduced to his work. Prizes act as ‘word of mouth’, they act as an indication of quality, regardless of whether the individual book in question might or might not be to one’s individual taste and they promise a reader will not be wasting her or his time. By promoting the Orange Prize shortlist as a whole, we are hoping that readers will try all six. Although our reading tastes differ, our personal preferences differ, there is a satisfaction in reading the whole selection chosen by a particular group of judges in any given year.

This, in the end, is what’s important – not simply the recognition for authors, but also the development of new and varied audiences all over the world for work of quality.

Off now to my local Waterstones to buy Blooms of Darkness ….