A couple of years ago the crime author Karin Slaughter was in Dubai for the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature. Someone asked what she thought of the way book awards tended to overlook popular genre toilers like herself. Her response, magnificent in its steeliness, was that she saw awards as "welfare for people who write very slowly." Pros, one saw, didn't need prizes. This week, after two of the world's most prestigious literary contests named their winners, it occurs to me that this might have been more than just a punchy line.
If Mario Vargas Llosa's Nobel victory caught most commentators on the hop, few disputed his worthiness. All the same, was he perhaps a little too worthy? The Nobel committee's record of political grandstanding and promotion of abstruse leftish obscurities (JMG Le Clezio, for instance) may get up a lot of noses, but what is a prize for if not to champion the authors who can't or won't sell themselves? Vargas Llosa is a good novelist who has written lots of decent books, garnered respectful reviews throughout his career and picked up a few readers on the way. He doesn't look bad in his fresh laurels but then, they don't add much to his established image either. In the ongoing conversation between the Nobel committee and the tastes of the world, he's a polite hesitation, a clearing of the throat.
This week Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question won the Man Booker prize, which is open to Commonwealth writers. It's a more irksome development than the Vargas Llosa victory since it appears to have been taken for a daring choice. Jacobson's book was the rare comic novel even to enter contention for the Booker. Indeed, Jacobson wrote an essay in The Guardian earlier this month lamenting the fact that comic literature isn't taken more seriously. His own book happens to be well worth taking seriously: it is heartfelt, provocative and superbly well-crafted. If its reflections on Jewish identity flirt a little too enthusiastically with chauvinism, that too is serious.
Still, a remark from the Booker committee chairman Sir Andrew Motion struck a strange note. It would be a mistake, he explained, to think that The Finkler Question is "relentlessly middle-brow or easy-peasy" just because it was comic. "It is much cleverer and more complicated and about much more difficult things than it immediately lets you know." All of this is true, but there's still something depressing about a literary award defending its own populism, even when its populist choices have a profound side. However gleeful Jacobson might have been in victory, one can't help thinking that he, like Vargas Llosa, was doing quite nicely already, toiling far from obscurity for nearly 30 years.
The question of which qualities a book prize ought to recognise often becomes another way of asking what, at bottom, literature is for. It's the sort of question that has to keep turning up in disguise because its familiar answers all seem so feeble. Who really believes that reading novels can encourage moral discernment or foster empathy or help one to grapple with the absurdities of existence? Who became a wiser person for slogging to the end of Middlemarch or Palace Walk? All we can say with confidence is that reading novels teaches one about novels.
Yet we go on all the same, taking various sorts of pleasure in our reading. Some of these pleasures are amenable to commodification. The formula is cracked, a cottage industry establishes itself and a level of professionalisation becomes possible. Pros, you recall, don't need prizes. Other pleasures can be trickier: they resist replication or fail to attract mass audiences. It may be hard to make money out of them, but it's still a cause for celebration when they arise. And the appropriate form of celebration in such unusual cases is the literary prize. It broadcasts their existence and supports their production. They're cause for celebration and celebration can help cause them in return. Except, that is, when winners keep winning.