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.

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