Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Literary Awards and Voting- Who Decides? Should You?

In a press release dated February 1, the Man Booker committee announced a new, one-time prize which it will award to a book published in 1970- a year whose fiction sort of fell through the cracks of the Booker Prize when it originated in 1969. You can read the post for a full explanation of how and why that year's books were not eligible for recognition, but this year it's been decided to recognize some of those books through this special award. Twenty-two books published that year have been selected for the long list; a short list will be announced in March and then the final winner will be decided via a popular vote on the Man Booker website, which means you and I can vote to determine the winner.

The Man Booker committee has done a popular-vote award before- 2008's Best of the Booker- but this prize got me thinking about literary awards in general. I commented Frances's post about the prize at her blog, NoneSuch Book, (an awesome literary blog you should be reading) that I wasn't crazy about the idea of literary prize winners being selected by popular vote. I mean, literary prizes should be awarded not on the popularity of a book but on its quality, right? I admit to being an elitist when it comes to awards. I do think that knowledgeable and experienced panels of professional experts are the right people to hand out most of them. I don't always agree with their decisions (Amsterdam? I mean, I love Ian McEwan's work too, but really?) but I don't begrudge them the right to make them.

At least you know the committee has read all the books on offer; who's to say the voting public has? Would you vote in the contest not having read all the books? I've only partially read one of the shortlisted books- Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander- and I would vote for it if I liked it more (or even if I'd finished it) just because, you know, why not. It's fun to vote in these things. It's fun to feel like you're contributing and involved. I'm sure engagement is the reason why the prize is open to public voting. And if I'm willing to admit that I'm capable of casting a vote that I'm totally unqualified to cast, who's to say I'm the only one? I doubt that every person who will vote will have read all of the books, or even very many of them.

On the other hand, why not vote? And who's to say that some eggheads on a committee are the only ones qualified to say what book deserves to win? For that matter, who cares who wins? Some of the authors are dead, and while yes, the winner (or his or her estate) will gain some book sales, since I'm told all the time no one reads literary fiction anyway what does it matter?

I think it matters because there's value to promoting good books, and in recognizing underappreciated books, especially those not currently out in hardcover or featured front and center at your local bookstores. But I'm really of two minds when it comes to pure democracy in these circumstances. What do you think?