Book Awards: Contract Obligations, CIA Connections, and more

By Carmen Comment

It really does seem like every other day there’s a new award announcement that goes out to the press, and almost as frequent is the backlash. V S Naipaul (paraphrased by Nilanjana Roy) once said that the Booker was “destroying literature” by looking for good, commercial books that died very quickly, while France’s Prix Goncourt rewarded “antiquated” books. Then there’s Gore Vidal, who pointed out that there are now more American book awards than writers. And Peter Whittle at the Times of London belives that “it can’t be a coincidence that [awards] have become so dominant during an era that has seen an odd alliance between the populism of the marketplace and the effects of cultural relativism.” But a couple of recent developments truly underscore how awards are less about the books and more about the behind-the-scenes machinations.

Earlier this week, the Sunday Times reported that Boris Pasternak‘s Nobel Prize win for DOCTOR ZHIVAGO owed much to the CIA and British intelligence, who secretly facilitated the accolade to embarrass the Kremlin, which had banned the novel. “I have no doubt whatsoever that the CIA played a key role in ensuring Pasternak received the Nobel prize,” said Ivan Tolstoy, a respected Moscow researcher who wrote a book about the the matter, which includes excerpts from a letter by a former CIA agent describing the operation that followed.

And then there’s Lemn Sissay, a recent judge for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, who was shocked to find out that apparently, agents can collude with publishers to guarantee, through publishing deals, that certain authors are put forward for specific prizes based on contractual obligations. “I heard of this practice, especially when we administered the Booker prize,” said Tarryn McKay at the charity Booktrust, which now runs the Orange prize. “But I don’t know too much about it personally.” Francis Bickmore, an editor at the independent publisher Canongate Books, was more forthcoming. “It’s standard for the big hitters and big prizes,” he says. “Yann Martel, who wrote LIFE OF PI, might not have been put forward if he’d been with a big publisher that already had writers who had to be put forward for the Booker.” Blame the Booker prize rules, which only allow publishers to submit two works – any others have to be called in through other channels.