This week’s column (published in the Business Post 14/10/07)

Anne Enright‘s fate will soon be decided. This Tuesday, at a glitzy, nervy London ceremony, the 45-year-old Irish author will learn whether or not she is to become the 2007 winner of the Man Booker Prize for her fourth novel The Gathering. If Enright fends off the five other shortlisted authors to bag the award, she will gain more than the £50,000 prize money. She will also find herself the recipient of worldwide splashy press attention and, almost certainly, a sales boost publishers would chew off their own arms to procure.

From a commercial perspective, Tuesday might be the pinnacle of Enright‘s career to date. But for all the garlands that could soon come Enright‘s way, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there is something missing from the award this year. Wonderful for authors as the Man Booker Prize continues to be, what critics have been stepping around of late is the unpalatable sensation that the award simply does not matter as much as it did last year or the year before that or the year before that…

The problem is not the Booker; it’s the proliferation of prizes that
surround it. Awards are everywhere these days, springing up like so
many bunnies chewing on a juicy patch of lawn. In the literary world,
you can win a prize for almost anything now. There’s the Bad Sex in
Fiction Prize, created by the late Auberon Waugh in 1993, which names
and shames the most gratuitous sex scenes in fiction.

There’s the Bulwer-Lytton literary parody prize, which asks
competitors to come up with the very worst possible opening line for
an imaginary novel. There’s even the annual Ernest Hemingway
Look-Alike Contest in Key West, Florida, which saw 122 gentlemen
compete this year to win a prize for being most like Hemingway.

And those prizes are just the fun, quirky ones, the prizes that have
heart and a sense of humour. The less enjoyable awards – the
corporate, flashy neon, televised, soulless affairs – are everywhere.
Think of a phone company and you’ll be able to think of an
accompanying award. As the awards reproduce, spinning off into
infinity, so do the award categories.

The Q magazine awards took place last week, and even the recipients
had to laugh at what they were being asked to accept. Awards were
handed out in the following categories: Q lifetime achievement award,
Q merit award, Q legend award, Q inspiration award, Q idol award and Q
icon award. In other words, to paraphrase Gaybo, there was an award for
everyone in the audience – or at least every star that had deigned to
show. You got the distinct impression that the quality of the artists’
music was the very last of Q’s considerations.

Reading the reports, I was brought back in time to my debut appearance
on stage. I was six years old and had been brought to my first ever
open-air Irish dancing competition. Halfway through my dance, a bee
stung me on the knee. I promptly fell over. Afterwards, the judges
gave me a medal anyway. Even then the decision was baffling to me.
“How can you win a medal for being rubbish?” I asked my mother. I
still think it’s a valid point.

These days, award ceremonies make me think more about cynicism, big
business and marketing tactics than artistic brilliance and excellence
in one’s field. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Some weeks ago,
reports appeared revealing that, with the exception of Ian McEwan, the
2007 Man Booker Prize nominated authors had experienced only a small
sales boost in the wake of the September announcement that they had
made the shortlist for the Booker Prize.

With so many awards in the world, the public may be finding it harder and harder to believe that any prize, even an accolade as prestigious as the Booker Prize, actually says anything significant about the quality of the
nominated work. So we’ve done the sensible thing: we’ve stopped buying it.

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