Am I a literary snob if I don't want the public judging literary prizes?

This week, it was announced that that Costa Short Story prize would open up its eventual shortlist to the public, to allow them to vote on a final winner:

Why? Well, I can see that it's more inclusive, obviously, and that it gets rid of the stigma of 'elitism' that literary prizes have (although, er, isn't that the point of them, to single out who's best?), as well as of those 'celebrities' who judge them (although I know one of the 'backroom' judges of this prize - as with many other prizes, the 'celebrity' judges often only read the shortlist, or a selection, not the entire range of submissions - and I'm pleased to say he's an experienced writer whose opinion I value completely).

The Scottish Book Awards first tried this last year, opening up the winners of its four categories, Fiction, Non-fiction, Poetry and First Book, to the public vote. It slightly concerned me, as I was one of those shortlisted in the Non-fiction category. I didn't expect to win my category (I was competing against Jackie Kay, no less, who went on to win the main prize for Red Dust Road). But if I had, I didn't relish trying to win over the general public.

Mainly because it then stops being a literary award and becomes a popularity contest (and I was never very good at those). In the case of the Scottish Book Awards, people were bound to vote for who they'd heard of, or just liked the best. How could we be sure we that those voting had read all the books up for the prize? How did we know if they'd read regularly, or at all? (In a slightly interesting aside, it's been reported that 50 Shades has sold more in print than in e-book format. I've also been told by booksellers of numbers of women purchasers confiding to them that they've 'never been inside a bookstore before'. Makes sense then - only those who like buying books regularly have Kindles. Does that mean print will be reserved for the non-book-buying public in the future? Oh, my head).

Writers already have enough pressure on them to tout their wares, hawking themselves round bookshops and book festivals, trying to interest the general public into buying their books.

What worries me about the public voting on a literary award is the impact such a need for 'popularity' will have on publishers - there's already too much emphasis on characters being 'likeable', stories being recognisable or something readers can 'relate to'. Won't this make that emphasis even more so?

The Costa awards are putting out an anonymous shortlist, in contrast to the Scottish Book Awards, which at least means you can't vote for a favourite writer. But that perhaps only piles the pressure on the most 'likeable' short story, not necessarily the best written.

I am a literary snob, I know I am. I know, as a writer, I want to be judged by people who have some experience in the relevant area and who can be authoritative about it. As with literary critics - I want to read, in a newspaper, the written opinions of a book by someone who knows what they're talking about, and who knows how to express him/herself, too. There are plenty of members of the general public who are experts on  the kind of writing they like reading, for sure. But I want some authority conferred on them before they can vote on my book. Is that wrong?


  1. When it comes to books, we already have a mildly effective popularity contest in which the great general public can happily get involved; it's called book sales. There's nothing intrinsically right or wrong about a book being a best-seller, but popularity is, in itself, no indicator of quality -- otherwise E L James would be preparing for a Booker Prize, or even the Nobel. I think you're right to want your work judged by people who know what they're talking about, and know how to express themselves too. If that makes us both litany snobs, then I'll happily design the t-shirt!

  2. That's how I feel, too, Paul - the public already votes with its purse. It has made me wonder about inclusivity though, and how to make people feel involved in the prize process, if there's another way of doing it?


Post a Comment

Popular Posts