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Literary awards: what can they teach writers?

Literary awards and book prizes are an essential ingredient of the modern publishing industry. A gong on the cover can turn a mid-list novel into an international best-seller, ensuring plaudits (and bonuses) for everyone involved. The novel might even merit a Wikipedia entry. But are lit prizes a sign of quality, a tribute to fan campaigning or a cynical sales ploy?

It’s probably a question that no writer should ask. It is an itch that I cannot but scratch.

Each month, my writing group takes a break from critiquing our WIPs to examine a complete, published novel. Everyone picks a book, based on a loose theme connected to making us better writers. Season three took on recently literary award winners, across a variety of mostly UK-based genre fiction prizes. We also ignored the idiosyncratic titan that is the Booker Prize and general fiction mega-awards like the Costa (RIP).

Seven recent literary award winners, from gothic horror to crime capers.

Our literary award winners

Here’s the list, as we read them:

What do literary awards do?

None of these are bad novels. Some are outstanding works, but a few aren’t very good, either.

That’s only my opinion, and seven novels is not a great sample of the literary awards pile. It would be a strange world where everyone liked the same things, and our small group differed on many details. All the same, there was a surprising amount of common ground on which novels richly deserved recognition for their excellence. At the other end of the spectrum, we were fairly consistent on the award winners that surprised us.

How literary awards work

Some literary awards are judged by the public, some by juries of writers and critics. It’s not uncommon to combine them, with open nominations for a longlist, a public vote for the shortlist, and the final verdict delivered by a jury. Or vice versa, with an open vote for a curated shortlist. Public votes are often restricted to members of an association.

As a former technology magazine editor, I’ve every reason to be cynical about awards. It was standard practice in the industry to organise awards categories so that prizes would go to everyone you (or your publisher) wanted to keep happy. It’s for your own good: your brand will benefit if that awards badge appears in the winner’s advertising. If every major brand expects an award, they’ll all buy tables at the gala dinner.

On the other hand, I once attended a trade association’s awards event where the judges refused to hand out a prize because there was nothing in the category good enough to deserve it. It’s difficult to silence an inebriated awards event audience, but in that moment you could have heard a glass clink if there had been anything to celebrate.

Literary genre awards are more exposed to public opinion and scrutiny. Fans are quick to attack anything that looks like bias or corruption, but the best judges are still just people, with their own tastes and biases. Partisan fans are not above campaigning for their favourite authors, and against those they dislike. Thankfully we didn’t examine the judging for these awards, just the books.

How to win a literary award

So what are my tips for winning literary awards? If three things stand out, they are classical literary allusions, contemporary themes and a love story.

Rewrite a classic

Mexican Gothic draws heavily on gothic fiction, which won attention from literary circles beyond the horror genre. I thought that it was so embedded in the European form that it failed to realise the potential of its Central American setting.

Hamnet rests entirely on the notion that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about the death of his son. I couldn’t buy into the premise, but I also felt that O’Farrell missed an opportunity to explore the dynamic between Shakespeare’s fictionalised home life and his creative work. Oh well, it would only have undermined the novel’s pervading miserablism.

Themes win prizes

Colonialism and empire are key themes of our era, and significant in Mexican Gothic, A Memory Called Empire, Empire of Sand, and I Am Thunder. They even play a role in the witty Dial A For Aunties. A Memory Called Empire is a wonderful example of science fiction’s ability to tell a completely modern story in a rich, fantastic setting that’s grounded in human history. It’s the only winner for which the sequel is in my reading list.

Don’t forget the romance

There’s a romance in every novel here, although Hamnet’s love story is unlikely to give you the warm and fuzzies. Then again, This Love is probably the least convincing love story on our list. Empire of Sand and I Am Thunder both fit firmly in the category of YA romance, their narratives driven by conflict between head and heart. A Memory Called Empire would be a lot less charming without its romantic subplot.

By now, you can probably tell which novels I think deserved their awards. But what do I know, and what do you think makes a deserving literary award winner? Give me your verdict in the comments section.

My awards go to:

A reading group for writers

Reading lists are always controversial, and the titles we had to read for our MA were no exception. When the dust settled after graduation, the graduates who stayed in a regular writing group decided that it would be fun to pick the novels that we thought would be illuminating for us, as writers. That list became season one of our reading group.

Season four will take on at novels from our personal re-reading lists, which have influenced us as writers or might be interesting in writerly ways. We began with The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet, and I’ll be posting a short review soon. I hope to deliver roundups of our club’s first two seasons when time allows.

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