Enlightened by a brush with PR and prizes

April 15, 2005

In her role as judge for a book award, Maria Misra is a convert to a bit of competition

My life has been submerged in a sea of books. Blockbuster histories, literary lives, war stories, political biographies, scientific tracts, travel journalism and the odd polemic teeter in accusatory piles around my room. I'm judging a literary award, the BBC4 Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, together with two news journalists, a literary editor and an academic mathematician. But while this is a more than welcome diversion from my habitual diet of dry South Asian political economy, I still harbour a few misgivings about dispensing literary laurels in this way.

Perhaps it's inevitable that writing, like so much else, should be reduced to a competitive sport. But it has occurred to me that, as a professional academic, perhaps I shouldn't be promoting the process. After all, I spend much of my time encouraging students not to think in winner-takes-all terms.

The whole purpose of our carefully selected reading lists is to introduce the notion of debate and the importance of pluralism. We do not assume that students can master a subject by reading one definitive text, nor is it common any more to think of isolated romantic geniuses or lonely pioneers driving knowledge forward. And isn't the whole prize-giving culture just replicating the depressing "celebrification" of modern life: the idea that there are a few "geniuses" at the top with the rest of us relegated to the category of also-rans? This approach, we are now told by psychologists, is fatally corrosive to social welfare and happiness.

But perhaps such anti-competitive squeamishness is rather Utopian and even, paradoxically, elitist. One could argue that literary prizes offer, in some sense, abbreviated reading lists to a general public that lacks the time to tackle a more comprehensive range. It is certainly difficult to see how a general reader is supposed to navigate the oceans of publications that fill our gigantic modern bookshops. In my own field of history, a bewildering profusion of not terribly distinguished volumes pours from the presses.

Often several books appear on the same subject as the phenomenon of "event" publishing brings several competing centenary biographies, anniversary retrospectives and wartime memorabilia.

Unless they keep a pretty close eye on press reviews and literary magazines, the general reader will be at the mercy of the publicity machines of the various publishing houses, which ensure that those books for which the largest advances have been paid loom most prominently on shop shelves. Literary prizes, with their paraphernalia of longlists and shortlists, offer some kind of quality control, along with an independent blast of publicity for books that might otherwise pass below the radar. A hard-line cultural purist will doubtless cavil at even this defence of the prize-giving culture. The whole business, they will argue, is merely another branch of the depressing PR-ification of British life. But perhaps we should not be so quick to dismiss PR. A recent international poll has revealed that, of all the Europeans, the British are the most cultured.

They are, it seems, the best read and the most avid visitors to art galleries and exhibitions.

This seems a great advance on our erstwhile reputation as one of the most bluff and philistine of nations. It is unclear why the British are now such renaissance men and women. But a comparison of the British and continental press suggests that it is the highly developed cultural PR industry that must take some of the credit. Whatever the drawbacks of the blockbuster art show, the literary festival and the book prize, they have undoubtedly contributed to Britain's new age of enlightenment.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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