It’s Booker season again. Which means it it’s also time for the Not the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature is just around the corner. We’re in the middle of literary award season. The bookish internet is all a-twitter with speculation and debate about who will win and who was snubbed and who deserved to win. I find it exhausting and frustrating, more so every time awards season rolls around. Mostly because my favorites hardly ever win.
NPR reporter Colin Dwyer published a short article about Namwali Serpell, who recently won the Caine Prize, that brought up new problems with literary prizes. Serpell announced that she would split the prize money with the other nominees if she won the award, which is given to recognize “the best original short story by an African writer, whether in Africa or elsewhere, published in the English language” (Wikipedia). Serpell said, “And it just felt weird and sad that we were now going to be pitted against each other in some kind of battle royal. I think, for the writers obviously, literature’s not a competitive sport.” Elnathan John told The Guardian, “I would prefer not to be a spokesperson at all. Whether for Africa or African writing” (quoted by Dwyer).
I don’t know how much bad blood springs from literary prizes between authors, but I absolutely agree with Serpell’s point that literature is not a competitive sport. How can one story or novel or poem be “better” than another to the point where one wins a prize and another doesn’t? The slates of nominees can be so diverse in terms of styles and content that even comparing them seems like a disservice. John’s comment about not wanting to be a spokesperson, I think, justifies my thought about the impossibility of judging one text to be objectively better than another. How can judges say that their choice of winner is the best short story by all African writers that year? Or the judges of the Baileys Prize picking the best book by a woman writing in English? That would be a big burden to carry for a year.