Literary prizes are less about literature than about marketing

William Golding receives the Nobel prize from King Gustav in 1983
William Golding receives the Nobel prize from King Gustav in 1983

Each year around this time, prestigious literary awards are dished out.

Each year around this time, prestigious literary awards are dished out, one after another, and each year I increasingly tend to yawn.

Marlon Jones's novel won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday

Marlon Jones's novel won the Man Booker Prize on Tuesday

The Nobel Prize for Literature - the most celebrated such trophy in the world - is awarded on the Thursday of Nobel week, and round about the Wednesday I start to wonder vaguely who in the world will get it and, more to the point, who in the world these days deserves to get it. The pool of living major writers has shrunk – or is it that as you get older those who once seemed major talents no longer seem quite so major?

Not that the giants of yore were necessarily in the running for this particular accolade, first awarded in 1901 and intended to honour the person “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency”.

Major writers that the Swedish Academy in their wisdom chose to overlook included Ibsen, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Conrad, Strindberg, Zola, Proust, James, Hardy, Wells, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Brecht, Cavafy, Rilke, Borges and Greene.

Meanwhile, they bestowed the prize on such featherweights as Björnson, Echegaray, Eucken, Lagerlöf, Heyse, von Heidenstam, Gjellerup, Pontoppidan, Spitteler, Deledda, Undset and Buck. More recently, the tractor-celebrating Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert (1984), the whimsical Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1996), the Italian comedian Darius Fo (1997), the Austrian pornographic novelist Elfriede Jelinek (2003), the dull French novelist JMG Le Clézio (2008), and the mediocre Chinese novelist and regime-collaborator Mo Yan (2012) have all been summoned to attend the Stockholm pomp and pomposity, the glittering banquets and balls, the speechifying and plastic-grinning that accompany this award.

William Golding (1983), one laureate I do believe deserved the accolade, found the ceremony “boring”, the banquet “ghastly”, and felt he deserved the prize money simply for attending.

George Bernard Shaw (1925), who nowadays seems less of a giant than he did in his prime (I find him a conceited old windbag), once declared: “I can forgive Alfred Nobel for inventing dynamite. But only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.”

This year, the shadowy gerontocratic panel of Nordic judges awarded the £775,000 prize to somebody you and I had probably not previously heard of, a Belarusian writer of collective oral histories (which may reopen the rumbling controversy about the prize’s politics).

As for the Man Booker Prize, that used to excite me once, in the days when it was televised, and Melvyn Bragg and a round-table of critics would intelligently discuss the merits of the six contenders, before the winner (often not the novel they thought worthiest) would be announced. That was back in the days when television still took literature, and the arts generally, seriously. It is no longer televised; they now have dubious celebrities on the judging panel; and, recently, its entire concept was changed for the worse when, from being a British and Commonwealth prize, it was opened to anyone anywhere in the world, with a preponderance of American entries.

The truth is there are no winners between novels, or between writers. Literature is not a horse race. The proliferation of prizes in recent years, often sponsored by beer and coffee conglomerates or other outfits with no cultural connection, is more about marketing and corporate PR than literary appreciation. The Man Booker may shift copies, but they tend to lie unread on the shelves of the pretentious.

One writer I admire, amid all this travesty of author-promotion, is John le Carré, who has never accepted any literary prize. When he was listed recently for the biennial Booker International Prize, he demanded that his name be withdrawn. For honesty and integrity, he deserves a prize.