Literary awards hold significant prestige and can greatly impact an author’s career and reputation. While winning awards can be a validation of an author’s talent and hard work, the pursuit of recognition may lead some writers to compromise the integrity of their work. This phenomenon, known as “awards bait” or “prize baiting,” refers to the deliberate crafting of a work to appeal specifically to award committees, often at the expense of genuine artistic expression and literary merit. Did you know that? It was new for me… and I came across such terms in the course of my research. The consequences of such practices can be detrimental to both the author and the literary landscape. Readers may detect insincerity in the work, leading to a loss of trust and diminished interest in future writings by the author. Moreover, award committees may become wary of recognising authors who appear to be chasing awards, undermining the integrity of the selection process. Nevertheless, the role of award committees is also questionable. It has been questioned on many occasions. In fact, there is a wonderful compilation done by someone for Literature News and you must read it here – Criticism of the Booker Prize for Literature.
Indeed, after reading the arguments in the Literature News article one can convincingly state that winning a prestigious literary award, such as the Booker Prize, does not automatically guarantee the literary merit of a novel. There are various factors that come into play when awarding literary prizes, including subjective judgments, political considerations, and marketability. As a result, some award-winning novels may not live up to the high standards readers and critics expect. Below are a few examples of award-winning novels that have received mixed reviews or faced criticism for falling short of anticipated excellence:
1. “The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson – Booker Prize Winner 2010:
“The Finkler Question” won the Booker Prize in 2010, but it received polarized reviews from readers and critics alike. Some praised Jacobson’s satirical take on identity, Jewishness, and friendship, while others found the novel meandering and lacking in depth. The narrative’s humour and insightful commentary were overshadowed by its inconsistent pacing and unclear thematic focus.
2. “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James – Booker Prize Winner 2015:
“A Brief History of Seven Killings” is an ambitious and sprawling novel that explores Jamaican history and political turmoil. Marlon James received acclaim for his evocative writing and portrayal of complex characters. However, some readers and critics found the novel’s non-linear structure and a vast array of perspectives confusing and challenging to follow. While its thematic scope was admirable, its execution left some readers feeling disconnected from the story.
3. “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton – Booker Prize Winner 2013:
“The Luminaries” is a historical novel set during the New Zealand gold rush, and its intricate plotting and detailed characterizations garnered the Booker Prize in 2013. Despite its accolades, some readers found the novel overly dense and slow-paced, making it a demanding read. The complexity of the narrative and the multitude of characters may have been perceived as burdensome by those seeking a more accessible and engaging story.
4. “Vernon God Little” by DBC Pierre – Booker Prize Winner 2003:
“Vernon God Little” is a darkly humorous novel that satirizes the media, American society, and the justice system. While some praised DBC Pierre’s witty prose and bold narrative style, others criticized the novel for its excessive profanity and shallow treatment of serious themes. Some readers felt that the novel relied too heavily on shock value and lacked a deeper exploration of its central themes.
5. “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy – Booker Prize Winner 1997:
The novel “The God of Small Things” won the Booker Prize in 1997… it was breaking news because a debut novelist won the award. However, critics have criticised the novel for various reasons and apparently, the language, lionised by some as ‘the best vessel for magical realism technique’ falls short of its basic purpose on many occasions. And perhaps the best critical response to the novel came from celebrated critic Carmen Callil, a Brit-Australian writer, who called the novel too bad to be read… and presented her public dismay when the novel was awarded the Booker Prize. The God of Small Things getting the award was more a political phenomenon than a literary achievement. And another novel by the author, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, proves it.
6. “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga – Booker Prize Winer 2006:
Adiga’s “The White Tiger” cannot get out of the shoddy reality that it was favoured by the Booker Prize Committee over a quality narrative weaved in the novel Sea of Puppies by Ghosh. (Read a recent review of Ghosh’s novel to understand his writings better – Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh.) It has come out in the open, since then, that the practices of the literary award committees and their bias cannot be untouched by politics and prejudices. The White Tiger, despite all its limitations, may be better than both of Roy’s attempts at novel writing, but it certainly did not deserve the ‘prestigious’ award ahead of the stellar narrative by Amitav Ghosh in the form of Sea of Puppies.
There is no doubt about intention as a collective consciousness. Yes, literary awards like the Booker Prize are essential for recognising and celebrating outstanding literary achievements. However, it is essential to remember that these awards are subjective in nature and influenced by a multitude of factors. While the novels mentioned above were deemed worthy of recognition by award committees, they also faced criticism for not meeting the expected standards of literary excellence. Readers should approach award-winning novels with an open mind, acknowledging that personal tastes and preferences may differ from the judgments of award panels. In the end, the true measure of a novel’s merit lies in the impact it has on individual readers and its lasting contributions to the world of literature. And readers know how to answer authors, committees responsible for awards or even the publishers who have become big subjective houses indulged in biased publications and selective promotion of titles ‘they decide’ could compete in the races for various prizes. Is there a way out?
By Ashish for Indian Book Lovers