Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Wanted: a critical revolution

The news that Sean O'Brien has won an unprecedented poetry double of the Forward prize and TS Eliot prize reminds me of Private Eye's background information from 2002 on O'Brien's impressive run of awards (via The Sharp Side). It's worth repeating:
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. [...]

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.
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?

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)?


  1. As Mike Jackson once tearfully sang, it is all about 'the man in the mirror.' All you get are free books and you admittedly wouldn't call Picador out. Get tough!

    Other good reviewers off the top of my head:
    Adam Kirsch
    Ben Lytal
    Troy Jollimore

  2. It was a hint to Picador! Their editions are often v. nice.

    As with James Wood, I have very mixed feelings about the first two names on your list, but I've not heard of the third.

  3. Drawing a blank here. Amis and Hitchens aren't exactly young, and they aren't exactly reviewers. They aren't as good as Wood, at least lit crit wise. Dale Peck was entertaining. A tad hostile, now a disillusioned truth telling teacher I believe.

    Perhaps Wood's latest will provide some tools...

  4. Aside from Josipovici, obviously, I thought of Michael Wood. And I've appreciated Wyatt Mason, too.

  5. Anonymous2:58 pm

    I thought of Tim Parks. His journalism is readable and thorough, but I don't rate it as anything higher than journalism.

    If his recent collection The Fighter is anything to go, his essays are a very enjoyable mix of excellent, if long, synopses coupled with plenty of biographical material, illuminating each time how the novel under discussion meshes with the life.

    Fascinating, but doesn't change the way you look at a book the way that reading Josipovici does. Park simply introduces you to interesting stuff in an entertaining way. But good as far as it goes.

  6. Well, I suppose I was hoping for some unexpected names - those I don't know. Online, for example. I remembered Dan Green after I had posted the blog. I'll have to look up Wyatt Mason.

    I have to say though, come the revolution, Amis and Hitchens will be first against the metaphorical wall. They're both fine writers, for sure, but in critical terms, no.

  7. Josipovici gives Wood great blurb on The Broken Estate (and agrees with Stephen): "We have very few critics...who can remind us that talking about literature is part of what literature is about, and talking about it with passion, precision, and out of a rich store of reading is a rare and precious gift..."

  8. i have just finished a mauscript entitled RE-Evolution whose title poem may be found on roguescholars.com
    i may try to send a cop to City Lights and New Directions; one asscoiated with Rimbaud and the othe Isidore Ducasse a.k.a Comte Latreaumont. if they reject me i am going to publish and distribute it myself via readings an street-stalls. Do you think i should jusst go with myself or wait and see if either publishers come through? I'm ready to roll, pot-boiling truths, no bullshit!



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