It is prize season in the Australian book industry, with Jennifer Down’s Bodies of Light winning the Miles Franklin award and The Age announcing its Book of the Year shortlist.
Each time a prize-winner is announced, or a shortlist selected, I grab a pen and paper and note the titles. Next time I am in a bookshop, those are the titles that I will seek out.
And even though I know there is a degree of cynicism among booklovers about literary awards and how on earth a book – such a subjective work – can be considered ‘the best’ at any one time, there is one thing I suspect … that the acclaim a book receives can colour my experience reading it.
I know it sounds wrong, but I feel that knowing that a book is a prize-winner encourages me to give it more of a chance if I don’t immediately like it. I’ll make extra effort identifying what the judges saw in it and stubbornly persist. After all, could a complete dud without redeeming features ever really make it onto a longlist, a shortlist, and then the top of the pile?
Take this year’s Booker Prize. The judges waded through 169 books before they narrowed down a longlist of 13 books considered better than the rest. There must be something good about each to have made it to the top of that particular pile.
Of course, a prize does not ensure a book will be enjoyable.
Sometimes, prizewinning books are too self-consciously clever, making them too hard for the general punter like I am, and too weighed down by their heavy themes.
I didn’t get very far at all with Alexis Wright’s Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria, I couldn’t get past the strangeness of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of Evening and I’m too scared to even start Anna Burns’ Man Booker-winning Milkman.
But then I think of the prizewinning novels that I have adored – Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, Arundhhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Sofie Laguna’s The Choke. I thank the literary gods … or at least the judges … that they brought these unforgettable novels to my attention.
I wonder whether I would have given them the chance I did, and even loved them as much, if they had not been given the stamp of approval by award judges.
Similarly, if a book has been adored by my friends, do I judge it as quickly or harshly as a book that has not been recommended?
And this is unlikely to be a surprise to writers. In Oh, William (a book itself shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize), Elizabeth Strout said of her readers’ experience:
“No matter what I write, every reader will bring their own story, which is how it should be.”
That might not just mean their experience, but also the influences that delivered them to that particular book, which might include a shiny ‘prizewinner’ sticker on the front.
Is this a problem? Does it make me, and all the readers similarly influenced, literary snobs?
Ultimately, I don’t think so – anything that makes me look more closely at a book to see what I might have missed, or persevere in reading what I might otherwise have cast aside, is a good thing.
Which makes me think that I should approach all books, not just the prizewinners with this open-mindedness. Trust my own perceptions as much as I trust that of the judges that have bestowed a prize for their own reasons.
And it does not mean that I’ll love every prizewinner, that’s certainly not the way it goes. But I will ask myself why a book might have been so admired to be judged superior to any other that year.
Now, where can I find a copy of Bodies of Light?