Lose the pomp, keep the circumstance

After the announcement of the Whitbread Book of the Year, asks whether the literary award ceremonies are nothing but an incredibly expensive waste of time

After all the hype of this Christmas’ ‘Greatest Ever’ lists which ranked all aspects of public culture from our favourite musicals to our favourite brand of shampoo, it comes as no surprise that yet another award has hit the headlines. The Whitbread Book of the Year Award, announced in January, has been running for over 30 years and is a well-respected annual event, but in a literary calendar in which prize ceremonies seem to be occur every few weeks has the industry gone into overdrive?

The Whitbread Awards are unique in Britain for their eclecticism. Books are short-listed in five different categories, and then one of the winners is chosen as Whitbread Book of the Year. This year’s title (drum roll please…) went to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. When we look at the books that won their short-list categories but failed to be recognised as Book of the Year, an interesting pattern starts to emerge. D.B.C Pierre, winner of the first novel award for his book, Vernon God Little, was announced as winner of the Man Booker Prize at the end of last year. Meanwhile, Don Paterson, winner of the Whitbread Poetry award for his collection Landing Light, was already safe in the knowledge that he had won the T.S. Eliot Prize earlier in January. All it needs is for Orwell: the Life by D. J. Taylor, and The Fire-eaters by David Almond to win a non-fiction and a children’s prize respectively and it will be a clean sweep!

And who judges these Whitbread awards? There are some professors – mostly from Oxbridge, naturally – and distinguished literary figures such as Andrew Motion and Meera Syal; but Liza Tarbuck? The public love to be told what is good to read, and when judges recommend something, it usually tops the bestsellers. Yet Mark Haddon said he thought The Curious Incident “got more publicity as a result of not being short-listed for the Booker than it would have done if it had made it on to the short-list.” The publicity machine that is publishing does eventually get its way but Haddon would not be so blasé if he had not received the top gong at the Whitbreads.

With over 150 literary prizes given out anually, it appears as if some authors write with the idea of a prize constantly in sight. The winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year receives £25,000. This is no mean sum, but compared to the £50,000 that the winner of the Man Booker Prize receives, it is no wonder the judges felt it unfair to give D.B.C Pierre both! You could argue that in a society where the winner of Big Brother receives £70,000, literary prizes are not very generous, but with the increased sales that are generated even by getting nominated for an award, the winning authors are sitting pretty.

Why do companies unrelated to literarature sponsor the awards? The Whitbread Awards claim that because Whitbread, a leisure company which owns franchises such as TGI Fridays, “provide enjoyment to many millions of customers each week” that this “provides a very clear and evident link between a leisure company and a book prize that celebrates reading.” Evident? Maybe it is to the board of directors who delight in the increase in profits which such extended publicity of the company name brings. With book prizes supported by such a wide range of companies from Orange to Nestlé, are we wrong to think that the main incentive behind corporate support for literary awards is for the companies to make themselves look good in the eyes of the public?

For those up and coming authors whose works are recognised for their refreshing new talent, clinching a book award such as the Whitbread is of monumental importance, not only to their bank balance but also to their self-esteem. Some awards and writing trusts are aimed specifically at encouraging unpublished authors, but there are many, such as the Nobel Prize for literature, which give awards only to the highly successful. It is still possible to read a book that has been genuinely recommended by a friend and not by a panel of judges, but it seems more and more common in the increasingly meritocratic society that we live in today, that when reading a book we end up judging the judges who have recommended it to us.