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Wednesday 23 January 2008

The Costa Book Award

Grab any random group of any size from street or mall, and providing only that they are all reasonably well-informed and reasonably intelligent people prepared to spend a moment or two in reflection (i.e. that they are not too random, but all a bit like yours truly), the chances are they will all agree that competitive comparisons in the arts are non-starters, generating more frustration than enlightenment. The finest painting (or painter), best poem of the century, and most beautiful sculpture are all meaningless because impossible to assess, though I have encountered them all at some time.

How much more impossible than just ordinarily impossible must it be then, to justify superlatives when judging between different genres? Yet The Costa Book Award purports to do just that, to choose which is best from between a slim volume of poetry, a novel, a first novel, a biography, and a children's book. How could they possibly do that. They couldn't, of course, but they attempt to get round the insurmountable difficulty by saying that they are looking for something "you could recommend to a friend". I guess that depends upon the friend. I am sure you could recommend all the contending volumes to a friend, though perhaps not all to the same friend. It seems its first sponsors were only too well aware of the difficulty when The Costa was established in 1971: its brief was to recognise the most enjoyable books of the past year. Mmmmm.... Does that take us any further? And does it not depend upon what you mean by "enjoyable". Some books are like some sermons: their prime task is not to provide enjoyment. The winner, A. L. Kennedy, for Day, has herself suggested that her book is harrowing - and that she would not recommend it to anyone suffering from depression. Just a thought.

She also made a plea in her acceptance speech for "libraries" with books in them. Mmmm again. Seems an eminently reasonable request on the face of it. But we all know where it's coming from.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

At some point that I won’t go look for Ezra Pound related that a Greek or Roman ancient leader wanted to encourage farmers to grow fatter pigs and so they issued coin currency with fat pigs on them. The farmer’s saw the pigs and said to themselves, we suppose, “Oh that is what my pig is supposed to look like.” Eventually pigs got fatter.

All of awards programs are in a very basic motivation a political action in the desire of whoever initiates them to influence the perception of what a fat pig would look like.

I started several years ago for a non-literary organization an awards program where we picked a fat pig… being an individual whose character and career us social engineering manipulative types (we were self-nominated to the task, of course) wanted to be emulated by all the other potential pigs (and the dream of America I suppose is that everyone have an opportunity to grow up to be a big pig) and we then turned to our selected pig and told him from here on out that the pigs would be forever responsible not only to select the next annual pig, but that it was their business to maintain themselves as a collection of fat pigs.

We then forgot to remind them that they are pigs. In other words we got it started then promptly tried our best to forget about it and run for our own cover.

They have done quite well as setting themselves out as special pigs with special responsibilities and to be role models of exemplary pigs. The award program has grown in stature over the years.

Having gone global we now have both a really fine Scot and another English pig (selected just this last October) to go along with the noisy batch of American pigs.