Literary Prizes: What Are They Worth

Sarah Dunant argues that while literary prizes are more important than ever it is rather tough, if not downright impossible, for the ‘best book’ to win. Of course this is true. As true as it in any field where subjectivity plays such a huge role. As much as I enjoyed Madeline’s Miller Orange Prize winning novel The Song of Achilles I was truly shocked when one of my favorite novels, Amy Waldman’s The Submission did not make it past the long list. 

On the face of it one could argue that the two novels have much in common: they are about dishonor and friendship and being true to yourself. But they could also not be more different.  Madeline’s novel, 1st person single POV, retells Homer’s Illiad with plenty of metaphor and simile.  Amy’s novel, 3rd person multiple POVS, is a contemporary tale about post 911 and ground zero and so topical she actually had to change dialogue to avoid it being ‘ripped from the headlines’. 

As such The Song of Achilles is a ‘comfortable’ read about war and its fallout set as it is in Ancient Greece while The Submission is a tougher read in that it forces the reader to confront the here and now.  It would have been a hard vote, but I think I can safely say my particular sensibilities would have had me voting for The Submission.

Dunant points out ‘prizes are a kind of lottery’. I’d prizes are nothing but lottery.

 Sarah Dunant for BBC’s A Point of View: ‘Prizes for All’
“You are probably already aware of some the names on this year’s Man Booker shortlist. But how much more aware you – and others – become over the next four weeks will determine not only each book’s commercial fate, but in some cases the writers’ publishing future. 


Like everything we are being sold in a hopelessly over-crowded market, novels strain to get their voices heard amid the cacophony. Launch a new brand of moisturiser and smart marketing and a big budget will ensure at least an element of brand recognition.

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(published in 2012)