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The Reward of an Award

The actor Stuart Campbell in his reading from Douglas Stuart’s ‘Shuggie Bain’ in the Booker Prize for Fiction 2020 ceremony. Image: BBC, Booker Foundation

As the Accolades Collide

We are, as you may have noticed, passing through the publishing-award equivalent of what zodiacal scholars sometimes call the “Mercury storm.” At this time each year, many awards programs reach their winner announcements.

Journalists who cover book publishing are especially aware of this because, unlike others, we aren’t able to pick and choose which awards to pay attention to and which to ignore. We’re expected to cover them all. This creates something between bad Franz Kafka and good Neil Simon at times, as we try to remember where we are in each program’s cycle. Is it the announcement of the jurors, the call for submissions, the longlist, the shortlist, the winner?

There are so many awards programs at the international level that we annually cover prizes we don’t even recall doing before. There are prizes for  just about everything except Authors Who Go Through Grocery Store Doors Sideways, and I’m afraid that one is getting a sponsor soon and announcing its jury.

Most of the awards are based in the United Kingdom. No one loves an award like the Brits do, and they hand them to each other year-round, nonstop. The FutureBook’s current round this week has each category named “Best of Lockdown.” The Women Poets Awards were just named. They’ve done a readers’ vote to name Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie the “Winner of Winners” in 25 years of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, good call. They gave the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding at the British Academy to Hazel Carby.

The Baillie Gifford Prize for Nonfiction is set to announce its 2020 winner on Tuesday (November 24). And on that same day (Tuesday), the Society of Authors in London will announce its shortlists for six, count ’em, six awards for writings in translations–a total 35 translated titles coming into English from six languages. For those of us who love international literature, this one is an annual bonanza of good content.

There may not always be an England but there will always be book awards there.

And we’ll soon be in our 2020 Clean Up on Aisle Two mode, as we try to gather up the various programs that got past us during other news–What? It’s not all about awards?–such as Souvankham Thammavongsa’s win of the Scotiabank Giller Prize in Canada for her short-story collection How To Pronounce Knife. Not familiar with the Scotiabook Giller? It hands over CAN$100,000 (US$76,562) to the winner and CAN$10,000 to each shortlistee.

If you’d like to see some of this coverage at Publishing Perspectives, our prize story tag will get you there [1]. Any time you need to see the latest awards news we have, just hit that link.

Two awards just this week, however, have helped me define something about the value of awards for writers. It goes beyond the obvious (and very welcome) assist in marketing and selling a book with a WINNER seal on its cover.

Ayesha Dharker in her reading from Avni Doshi’s ‘Burnt Sugar’ in the Booker Prize for Fiction 2020 ceremony. Image: BBC, Booker Foundation

The Clarity of Recognition

Two huge contenders in English-language awards had a “near miss” on the calendar this week. The United States’ National Book Awards winners [2] were named on Wednesday night in five categories. And less than 24 hours later–Thursday afternoon, US time–the BBC was streaming and broadcasting its gleaming ceremony for the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction [3].

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

If you’re interested, we include the shortlists behind the five National Book Awards winners and the Booker in our coverage, respectively, here [2] and here [3].

I had an “aha! moment”–which may deserve an award for the most cliched phrase in this article–during the Booker’s luminous awards program. Each of the six shortlisted books was given a reading by a professional actor earlier in the week, under the direction of the Old Vic’s Katy Rudd. Not only will there always be awards in England, but there will always be fine actors there, too. And the excerpted tapes of these artists’ readings were arresting.

Especially in Stuart Campbell’s reading from Shuggie Bain and in Ayesha Dharker’s reading from Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, I recalled something from my own days as an Equity actor in the 18th century: clarity.

One of the most addictive blessings a good role provides to an actor is clarity. For a couple of hours onstage, or even during the privilege of hearing someone fabulous read several pages from a penetrating work of literature, if you’ll look into your actor’s eyes, you’ll see a person at peace. Even in the wild and angry bits, the actor is strangely at peace.

The concentration required to inhabit another life, the revelry of knowing that everything you’re saying is eloquent, and the fact that you cannot check Twitter or do anything else while delivering the goods comes down to one thing: everything falls into place. The doubts and fears of actual life have been replaced. Actors come to crave this drug. It’s better than escapism, it’s clarity.

And during Charles Yu’s gobsmacked acceptance speech Wednesday night–he was ready, he said, “to melt into a puddle”–something like that same clarity popped into his eyes.

Less raucous but obviously tingling with relief, Douglas Stuart then had that same look as he spoke to journalists in his press conference afterward about Shuggie Bain, which had taken him more than a decade to write (it’s his debut, no less). He’d been deeply impressed with Stuart Campbell’s formidably committed reading, too, and happily cast him during our news conference as the brother in an imaginary screenplay of the book.

What you sometimes see in a winning author’s eyes is that clarity of being recognized, much like the clarity you see in a fine actor’s eyes as she or he explores a text.

Nina Sosanya in her reading from Maaza Mengiste’s ‘The Shadow King’ at the Booker Prize for Fiction 2020 ceremony. Image: BBC, Booker Foundation

An award says to an author that a certain exercise has come to completion with a satisfying thunderclap of recognition for the work and its impact on readers. Of course, 15 other manuscripts may be on the desk needing attention and the award may be for work written long ago. Olga Tokarczuk won the International Booker and the Nobel 10 years after Flights appeared in her native Poland. But even so, there’s a falling into place conferred by an award, and that’s even better than that trophy.

The gleam in a winner’s eye–so often thought to be the sass of beating others–may actually be the luxury of clarity, of completion. The enhanced vision of a purpose, an effort, recognized.

What does winning an award give you?–or if one hasn’t come your way, how would it feel when it arrived? It feels great, of course, but more specifically, can you get a sense of completion, of clarity, when recognized by such an honor? Or is there something more important to you in it?

About Porter Anderson [4]

@Porter_Anderson [5] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [6], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [7] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [8]