Saudi Gazette 26 April 2005
Commercial Considerations Overtake Literary Merit
by Susannah Tarbush
The British Book Awards held last Wednesday at the Grosvenor House Hotel, and screened on Channel 4 TV two days later, lived up to their claim of being “the Oscars of the book trade” and the tables were packed with literary and other celebrities.
But at the same time the glitzy gathering, held annually since 1990, was disconcerting proof of the extent to which commercial considerations now dominate the publishing world . When the novel “The Da Vinci Code” by American author Dan Brown won the Book of the Year award, this was more for its phenomenal sales, 2.4 million paperback copies in the UK alone, than for any literary merit.
And unlike the annual televised Man Booker prize ceremony, where each shortlisted novel is discussed before the winner is announced, the British Book Awards whisked through the shortlisted and winning books at such speed that no in-depth assessments of books were given.
The husband and wife TV presenter couple Richard Madeley and Judy Finnegan hosted the event. The couple have had a dramatic impact on book sales since moving from ITV to Channel 4 in 2001 to host the daily Richard & Judy Show. They have attained a success with their book club comparable to that of the Oprah Book Club in the US.
The winners of the 12 awards were presented with giant gold pen nibs, which have earned the awards the nickname of The Nibbies. There was also a lifetime achievement award, won by wheelchair-bound 82-year-old John Mortimer, creator of the fictional lawyer Rumpole. Mortimer’s Hollywood actress daughter Emily had flown over from the US to present him with the award
The evening was particularly rewarding for novelist David Mitchell. His novel Cloud Atlas, which was beaten in last autumn’s Man Booker prize by Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, won the Literary Fiction award.
Cloud Atlas also won the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year prize. This prize was voted for by viewers of the Richard & Judy Book Club.
There was a poignant moment when footballer Paul Gascoigne stepped up to receive the award for Sports Book of the Year for his book Gazza – My Story. The former tearaway, whose book describes a hell of drink, drug and relationship problems, was a shadow of his previous self. In a tearful acceptance speech he spoke of the depression from which he is suffering.
Actress Sheila Hancock received the Reader’s Digest Author of the Year award for The Two of Us, her memoir of her marriage to actor John Thaw. Thaw, best known for his TV role as Inspector Morse, died of cancer in 2002.
This year’s awards saw the launch of the new Decibel Prize, supported by the Arts Council, for the writer of African, Caribbean or Asian descent who has made the most important contribution to the literary scene during the past year. The winner was Hari Kunzru, author of the novels Transmission and The Impressionist.
Do black or Asian British writers really need a special prize? There is something rather patronising and politically correct in arguing that they do - especially given their success in winning mainstream literary prizes. Think of Andrea Levy, Hanif Kureishi, Zadie Smith, Caryl Phillips, Ben Okri, Aamer Hussein and Monica Ali among others.