Monday, November 17, 2008

"Spear in hand": judging a literary prize

One memorable revelation to be found in Blanchot's Epoch - an edition of Edinburgh University Press' journal Paragraph dedicated to the eponymous author - is that fifty-one years ago Blanchot helped to launch a new literary prize: the Prix de mai [sic]. "The question of literary prizes is an annoying one" begins the wonderfully unenthusiastic launch article he wrote for the newspaper L'Express.
This relic of school speech-days, this habit of getting together, on the part of people without authority nor mandate, to assert that such and such a book, rather than some other, deserves glory, and even to confer glory upon it, this choice which represents nothing so much as the desire of the reading public not to have to choose and to be able to speak about books without ever having to read them, the plots and intrigues that arise as a result, the interests of publishers (here at least there is something solid), the restless movement of curiosity, contentment, and discontent, a mixture of anecdote and untested opinion, which is part and parcel of literary society, the irresistible need, whenever a new literary prize is set up, only to select books that are likely to be popular and thereby acquire an authority of which it is claimed that, once one possesses it, good use will be made of it, albeit that on every occasion what first comes to mind is self-promotion, as though the point is not to celebrate a book, but the prize itself - and alongside this the growing discredit into which all prizes have fallen, hand in hand with the bizarre confidence that one is always ready to have in oneself, the always recurring temptation to try to take advantage of this absurd situation in order to steer it back towards a more promising outcome: one could continue forever listing the consequences each one of us has to face as a result of the habit of literary prizes, a habit which is widespread in the world, but, in France, is already something of an obsession. [Trans. Leslie Hill]
Fifty years on, the obsession has spread. If what he says is all too familiar and true, why did Blanchot get involved? "Perhaps we are all making a mistake" he concedes.
What then is [the judges] intention? This is very precise. What they have in common is the shared thought that there is still something to be expected from the novel. But what is it that they expect? Certainly not more novels ... but precisely books that are slightly different or slightly irregular, which are not yet novels, but give shape to new possibilities, or put a face on what does not yet exist.

The writers associated with the Prix de mai have no other priority than that of sharing their concern for these new possibilities.
Last Thursday, the longlist for the Warwick Prize for Writing was announced; twenty books ranging across forms, not just the novel, not just fiction. See The Guardian's report for the list. One of the reasons I was happy to get involved in judging the prize is precisely the hope to give shape to new possibilities in writing.

One point of order needs to be made: the judges did not choose the longlist. This was left to the 5,000-strong staff and honorary graduates and professors of the University of Warwick. Perhaps for this reason, and because it is the inaugural prize, the list is slightly less radical than we might have hoped (I would have loved some Philosophy and online writing for example). However, as Erica Wagner says, the twenty books won't enable anyone to "fall into the trap of thinking that you always know the sort of book you like to read".

With most of the longlist ahead of me, I will be maintaining my pose alongside the narrator of Vila-Matas' Montano's Malady: "spear in hand, against the enemies of the literary". But does anyone know what happened to the Prix de mai? I can't find a list of winners.


  1. "Wonderfully unenthusiastic"? How Blanchotian! What exactly is the point of being so ironic, in your participation in and opinion of these literary awards?

  2. I don't understand the question Lloyd as I don't see any irony in this blog. And did I express an opinion here about any literary award?

  3. Anonymous10:42 pm

    "One point of order needs to be made: the judges did not choose the longlist."

    Now that is interesting. I had thought I detected the hand of China Miéville in the inclusion of Brasyl, and of your own in Montano's Malady. Which just goes to show the dangers of presumption and inference.

    (Then again, have just looked at the rules and I see the University assessors are to pick 15 titles, to which the judges may add one each. Perhaps I was not so far off the mark after all?)

    John Self (who is unconvinced that Blogger will not render him as 'theasylum' again)

  4. It seems to me you have made rightfully disdainful, or at least disparaging remarks about the process of giving out literary awards; most of which I have appreciated as an effort to point to authors who were overlooked by these awards. That you are a Judge participating in the choice of a new award (the Warwick) seems like a good thing. But then, this quote from Blanchot, who definitely seems to be high and mighty and scornful of literary awards altogether, comes across as ironic, when you call it "wonderfully unenthusiastic." It seems like you are drawing a parallel between yourself and Blanchot.

    I realize you blog is free of irony in general, but I would challenge you to deny your (excellent) opinions have not been implicitly critical of establishment literary awards, when they appear in conjunction with discussion of such--like the Booker.

  5. First of all apologies Lloyd for the delay in moderating this comment. I didn't receive the usual email.

    I don't read Blanchot's comments in the same way as you. He's just trying to emphasise what sets the Prix de mai apart. His involvement suggests not scorn for literary awards "altogether" but the way in which they have evolved away from the purpose he then assigns to the new prize. It's a purpose I hope the Warwick Prize embraces. Otherwise, I am critical of prizes like the Booker and will continue to be so long as they fail to meet the prize's stipulations (i.e. this year's Booker judges using it to promote their own philistine agenda by usurping the literary cache the Booker has existed to promote and which has given it the aura they abused).

    By the way, I notice on Tales from the Reading Room you refer to Blanchot's "angry post-modern modes of reflection". "Angry" and "post-modern" are about as far from Blanchot as is possible to get. What have you been reading?

  6. Thanks Stephen for retrieving my Comment, I was wondering what happened to it.

    I do have difficulty with Blanchot, who seems "angry" not because of his style (which I find at first soothing, and then stultifying, and unnerving), but because of his sustained attempt to unravel and disassociate language from literature; all the while framing it in terms of a question of meaning. I don't think he finds meaning anywhere, but has a special tool kit for finding nothingness in its place (if this isn't "postmodern" I don't know what is.) Blanchot is philosophically violent--from my point of view. He is a far more incisive thinker than a capable artist--and I perceive him as essentially jealous of literature. His "Writing the Disaster" is all too serious. Again, not for the tone, but in the cold freeze effect of his thinking. He does not advocate for any reader I know. I completely separate him from the "Literature of the No", as in Vila-Matas (my favorite author of the moment), who is celebratory.

    But here is a big caveat: This is my personal reaction as a writer myself; which boils down to this: I am afraid of him. (And what he is doing to my vast, unknown, innocent audience.)

    While I have your ear: what is your view of Jules Romains? I have been reading him lately (THE DEATH OF A NOBODY, and now MEN OF GOOD WILL)

  7. Isn't Blanchot's "nothingness" rather silence and the neutral?

    Jules Romains - I don't know anything about him. Not even heard of him before a few mentions online recently.



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