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?

14 comments:

Laura said...

Marie, generally speaking I prefer literary prizes be awarded by a professional panel. I don't trust public opinion -- just look at the bestseller lists (*shudder*)

My theory on the Lost Man Booker Prize (and the associated public voting) is that it's a way to generate interest in the main prize. If they ever turned over the annual prize decision to the public, I will have a fit!

jennysbooks said...

I can't decide how I feel about this! On one hand - yeah, as Laura says, look at the bestseller lists - but on the other hand, I often hate the books that win these prizes, too. Maybe it makes sense to have a committee pick out the list, and then people vote on the books from the list. That way someone's weeding out the popular-but-not-very-good stuff (like Da Vinci Code), but I still get to vote. :P

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I would say it depends on the criteria for winning. If it's just "is this an enjoyable book" then why shouldn't everyone vote? But if it is awarded, as I suspect it might be, for a certain type of literary accomplishment, I would think hoi polloi would not be as qualified to weigh in on that.

wordlily said...

The problem I see with having these prizes awarded by popular vote is that, like you mentioned, I'd feel OK voting even though I've only read one of the books. But that means the decision isn't based on quality at all.

Serena said...

I think popular vote would work if more of these literary works were marketed...But since they are not, its hard to have popular vote decide because so few read these books.

Great discussion.

jewwishes said...

I agree on the professional panel aspect in the award if it's for literary excellence.

bermudaonion said...

Interesting question. I think awarding a prize based on popular vote would be fine, but I do think you should read all of the books shortlisted before you vote. Of course, there would be no way to know if voters had done that or not.

King Rat said...

Both methods have their drawbacks. If a committee picks it and the general public doesn't like it, is it really quality? If the general public picks it, are they really considering all the things they should be considering?

I think the real solution is that I should pick all the winners.

stacybuckeye said...

Interesting. I think it wouldn't mean much to receive he award if it just becomes a popularity contest. My biggest problem is that the voter will probably not have read all the books. How then can he or she be a qualified voter? Good post :)

Zibilee said...

I agree with you Marie. I think that a lot of people would only vote for the books that they have read making this in essence, a popularity contest (as the poster before me said). While I think it would be cool to have an actual say in a book being awarded the prize, I tend to think that the judges are there for a reason and would think that they are capable of doing their job. But I also agree that their choice of Amsterdam was a huge misstep, so I am not sure where I fall in this argument. I am going to be looking over the long and short list, but I don't think I'll be voting on it. Very cool post, it will be interesting to see what happens.

Jeanne said...

It sounds like we're saying that if someone is willing to read all the books on the list, that person should be considered as a judge. "Professional panels" are sometimes just other writers.

Pam said...

I think literary awards should be decided by "experts". As long as the award is advertised as having been made by popular vote then it's ok with me. Though, I agree, most people will not have read ALL the books and therefore the vote will be flawed. I would take this argument one step further and say that this very problem of "uninformed" voting can be applied to our political system as well. Though, that's a discussion for another time/forum.

Melissa said...

I have a sneaking suspicion that the people who pay attention to and would vote on this special "Lost Booker" are the segment of the population that would be interested in Booker nominees in general. Bookers are big in literary circles but don't quite have the voting pull that something like American Idol has.

Sandra said...

I read a lot of Booker nominees:

http://freshinkbooks.blogspot.com/2010/02/complete-booker-challenge-2010.html

Frankly, I want the judges opinions, just like other years, not the public's. I know for a fact that they've read the books. I would however accept the opinion of anyone from the public who had read all the books.

My other quarrel is with the age of the judges. Forty year olds have no real concept of the times during which these books were published, they didn't live through them. I want 80 years old for judges-they were adults with some reading behind them when theses books came out.
But the committee didn't ask my opinion so we get what we get. I only wish I had time to read-or even obtain, many of them.