the american scene A new consumer-driven literary prize is vulgar in the true meaning of the word
A sure way of gauging the contrasts between different countries' literary scenes is to look at their literary prizes. The Goncourt, with its paltry ten-euro winner's purse, expresses a haughty Gallic academicism - an Olympian disdain for the "market". The Goncourt serves French literature, not the book trade.
Britain's Man Booker Prize is more pragmatic; it is Anglo-Saxon and proud of it. Primarily "literary", it none the less aims to get good fiction sold. And it succeeds - pragmatically. The Booker is also as nostalgically imperial as the statue of Wellington at the Guildhall, under which the winner is announced: only contenders from the home country and the old commonwealth need apply (an exception being made for Eire; no one is sure why).
American prizes are as different as America itself. The Pulitzers, administered by Columbia University, are dominated by that institution's journalism school. Writing, as the heirs of Joseph Pulitzer value it, is a strictly professional thing. Fiction being on the edge of the prize's central interest - the newspaper world - the best novel of the year is recognised, but barely publicised. Can you remember the 2005 winner? (Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.)
America's National Book Awards, which have been going for half a century, have traditionally prided themselves on balancing high-critical judiciousness with due attention to book-trade concerns - moving units. For some years, they had the comedian Steve Martin "emcee" the awards, Oscars-style, at the annual New York function; this year it's Garrison Keillor.
Sights were not lowered sufficiently for many in the book trade. A couple of years ago, the NBA daringly (as they may have thought) gave a lifetime award to Stephen King, for his "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters". With worldwide sales approaching half a billion, King had made a distinguished contribution to American coffers. While the author of Carrie could never expect to be a contender for best novel of the year, it was felt that the massiveness of his monetary achievement deserved some acknowledgement.
If the NBA administrators expected gratitude, they mistook their man. King took the opportunity of his acceptance speech to launch a blistering attack on the snobbery of the literary establishment: "Tokenism is not allowed. You can't sit back, give a self-satisfied sigh and say, 'Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another 20 years or perhaps 30, we'll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the bestseller lists.' It's not good enough."
King's blast reverberated. A real-world prize was clearly needed. His call was answered by Reed Business Information, publishers of the trade magazines Variety and Publishers Weekly. Last year, in alliance with the TV network NBC, they set up the Quills Literacy Foundation, to administer "a new book award program that pairs a populist sensibility with Hollywood-style glitz to bestow the first literary prizes reflecting the tastes of the people who matter most - readers". Selections would be "consumer driven" (that is vulgar, in the word's true meaning, "of the people for the people"). Judges would be chosen from the ranks of booksellers and librarians. Strong performance in Publishers Weekly bestseller lists would be a prime criterion.
Sneakily, the first Quill Awards ceremony was planned for October, the day before the NBA shortlist was announced. The bash took place at Pier 60 in New York, under NBC's cameras. Each of the 19 prizes was awarded by a different celebrity. Britain's Nick Hornby handed Bob Dylan his prize for Chronicles: volume one. The headline winner among the 19 categories? Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And winner for the sports book of the year? None other than Stephen King (with Stewart O'Nan) for Faithful: two diehard Boston Red Sox fans chronicle the historic 2004 season. Goncourt it ain't, but justice, of a kind, it may be. American justice, that is.