Literary Awards: Judging a Book by its Bling

“This is a country where awards are invented every day because that’s how readers and publishers and others keep a list of what one should and shouldn’t read. People don’t choose books by covers, they choose them by the gold thing that says, winner of the blue shark award, or whatever.”  — Annie Proulx

This statement, from a 2009 interview with Proulx in the Paris Review, jumped out at me. More often than I’d like to admit, I’m guilty of judging a book by its bling.

It was a realization I caught on to when I visited The Last Bookshop a couple of weeks ago. Because they sell “remainder” stock from chain bookstores, you won’t find your usual suspects of best sellers, new releases and your most recent PEN/Faulkner award winner (though you will find previous winners). Likewise, there are no staff picks or friendly reviews blue-tacked to bookshelves, the kind you may find at other independent and traditional bookstores, a useful tool for guiding the gormless reader like myself. Their stock changes too quickly for all that and, besides, all you have to do is ask one of the knowledgeable staff and they’ll tell you which books they enjoyed.

When perusing The Last Bookshop’s eclectic range of un-alphabetizes and unaccredited books, I realized just how much my reading selections are guided by awards, reviews in national publications, and recommendations by other authors I enjoy. In The Last Bookshop, where every book is given equal footing, I feel daunted. Lost. Where do I begin?

But the more I think of it, I love this revolutionary approach to selling books. It feels defiant, like they’re sticking up for all those underdog writers who fell just short of winning some award, were never reviewed, or else didn’t have the resources or good luck to have those opportunities.

I was reminded of how faulty awards can be as a measure of value when I finally read Lark & Termite this weekend. Many people will have at least heard of the bestselling novel by Jayne Anne Phillips, because it received so much press last year. It was a Finalist for National Book Award. I picked it up for two reasons: 1) because I’d been researching the Korean War for a novel I’m writing and Lark & Termite is set partly during the war, and, 2) because it received so many positive reviews.

Which just goes to show how subjective literary tastes can be. The writing, which many reviewers found poetic and “emotionally piercing” (according to the NY Times), I found affected. There was too much backstory and, often, too much of the same backstory repeated by different characters without enough variation to warrant its inclusion.  The dialogue was too modern to be convincingly set in the 1950s, and I got distracted by the arbitrary use of italics (beginning in the middle of a paragraph and carrying on for several pages) during Termite’s sections. And then, that whole train-going-into-a-tunnel metaphor? Didn’t we think that was just a teensy-bit overstated, not to mention unoriginal? And while we’re on the subject of sex, I have to say I’m ever so bored with this one sex scene per chapter quota that publishers seem to impose on bestselling authors. I say impose because surely no author would voluntarily write frequent and awkward sex scenes if someone wasn’t making them. There are but few good sex scenes in literature and all the rest are good only for the shredder.

The book was not for me.

But, you see, that’s just my opinion. Maybe if I hadn’t been bedazzled by the shiny silver National Book Award stamp and the effusive praise from, it is generally accepted, trustworthy reviewers, I would not have bought the book and there would be another delighted Lark & Termite fan out there.

I’m not saying let’s get rid of awards and reviews, by the way. I’ve enjoyed many bestselling books and those by award-winning authors. But not every author can be the media’s darling.

And so, because I’m still pumped about The Last Bookshop and their revolutionary approach to selling books, I’m all for supporting independent bookshops, reviewers, bloggers and publishers, who give these less well-known authors a leg-up, a chance to be seen by contemplative readers, and who believe in the reader’s ability to judge a book by its writing, by its story and, yes, by its cover.

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