This year's judges [for the Forward Prize] include two poets published by Picador (Sean O'Brien and Michael Donaghy), who have shortlisted two other Picador poets (Peter Porter and Paul Farley) for the £10,000 top prize. Last year's judging panel also included two Picador poets - Donaghy (again) and Peter Porter. Last year Porter gave the main prize to Sean O'Brien. [...]And guess who chaired the judging panel this time! Now, I am aware of the difficulty of avoiding apparent favouritism in literary Britain. It is such a small world. For instance, it's unlikely I would have posted this if Picador was in the habit of sending me free books. Even one. And I'm also aware of the philistine cynicism of Private Eye's famous editor, TV's Ian Hislop. Did his organ have anything to say about the remarkable good fortune of his wife's first novel - a romantic potboiler - getting picked for Richard & Judy's Book Club and then scooping the "Best Newcomer" prize at the 2007 British Book Awards?
Last year the £5,000 prize for "best first collection" went to another Picador poet, John Stammers (a product of Donaghy's poetry workshops), and the £1,000 “best single poem“ prize was given to Ian Duhig for a poem - you guessed it - from his forthcoming Picador collection. The same poem earlier won Duhig the £5,000 top prize in the Poetry Society's national poetry competition, judged by a three-man panel including his mate Don Paterson, the foul-mouthed Scottish bard who also happens to be the poetry editor at, er, Picador.
This year's five-poet Forward shortlist includes two other chums, David Harsent and John Fuller (winner of the Forward prize in 1996, when one of the judges was again Sean O'Brien). And Sean O'Brazen was one of three judges of the 1997 T. S. Eliot prize (worth £5,000), which was awarded to ... his own editor, Don Paterson.
Duhig, Donaghy, O'Brien, Harsent and Paterson all have the same agent, TriplePa, aka Gerry Wardle - who just happens to be Sean O'Brien's partner. And Donaghy, Duhig, Farley, Fuller, Harsent, Paterson and Porter have all received fulsome write-ups from the Sunday Times's main poetry critic, one Sean O'Brien.
However, despite all this, the problem with literary Britain is not the incestuousness of awards but the value placed on them. It's almost certainly the same in the US. I was going to say literary awards have replaced criticism as the basis of judgment because the latter has lost its authority, except "replaced" and "lost" suggest that it was ever any different.
So, in order to recover from the crippling suspicion and inanity of prize-giving, we need a critical revolution. We need to save poetry and novels from their award-winning misfortune! This might happen when a review-essay carries more authority than the compromises of a prize committee often made up, in the case of literary novel awards, of celebs and middlebrow media whores. This means we need more young writers with the long-sight and patience of, for example, James Wood (how ever you might disagree with him). The fact that I'm struggling now to think of more names to people this vanguard is evidence enough of its necessity. Any suggestions (present company excepted)?