Joy and controversy over book and music awards

It's awards season, and the worlds of literature and music are celebrating and bickering over the Mercury and Man Booker prize contenders. Does winning matter, beyond boosting sales and careers?

What do Sting, Amy Winehouse and Dizzee Rascal have in common?

Aside from being chart-topping musicians, they've all been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize – an annual award for Britain's most innovative and creative album.

This year, PJ Harvey, the eccentric singer-songwriter from Dorset, was the favourite. She has become the first person to receive the award twice – she first won on September 11 2001. This year's winning album, Let England Shake, is inspired by the wars that followed that day. 'I hope to win again in another 10 years' time,' she quipped. Her publishing company will be hoping so too – they can expect hugely increased sales after an album wins a prize.

The same fever of expectation surrounds the Man Booker Prize, which awards £50,000 to the author of the year's best full-length literary novel in English written by a citizen of the Commonwealth or Republic of Ireland.

The shortlist, revealed this week, was full of surprises – previous winner Alan Hollinghurst, whose new book has been praised by critics, was nowhere to be seen, and the unusual inclusion of a book set in the Wild West raised a few eyebrows.

To the rest of us, even keen readers, this may seem a bit of a sideshow. But with Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan among previous winners, it's clear that victory can propel an author into the big league. For those on the shortlist, a prestigious award can be career changing: sales and future publishing deals will become more lucrative, with film or TV versions and other spin-offs on the cards.

For a newcomer like Stephen Kelman, shortlisted for his debut account of a gangland murder told through the eyes of a child, the circus of publicity and speculation that surrounds the Booker will pluck him from obscurity.

And the winner is…
Some say all this attention and awe is undeserved. The literary critic David Sexton, says of the Man Booker: 'Although the award appears to have a continuous identity as the arbiter of excellence, in reality what you get each time is a bit of a toss-up.'
Music connoisseurs love to deride what they see as a formulaic Mercury prize nomination list: they say it repeats a similar combination of acts every year to create a false view of musical 'good taste'.

Are we wrong to allow a panel of so-called experts to choose our favourites for us? Or is it useful to have those in the know give us some guidance on what to read and listen to?

You Decide

  1. What matters more – record or book sales, getting recognition with a prize, or following your own direction even without either?
  2. Is 'taste' in art, literature or music just about how you feel about something, or are there other, more universal things to look for?

Activities

  1. Choose a book, song or recording artist, and write an argument for why this is 'the best' in its class.
  2. Study the previous winners of the Booker or Mercury awards. Using a small selection, study the effect the award has had on the winner's career.

Some People Say...

“Arts awards are just posh bingo.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Who chooses the winner of these awards?
They're chosen by a judging panel of experts, critics and industry professionals. This year's Booker panel was headed by Stella Rimington, the ex-head of MI5, and included novelist Susan Hill and journalist Matthew d'Ancona.
How do they come to their decision?
It's a long process. The panel begins with a couple of hundred books or albums. They need to read them all, whittle everything down to a longlist of less than twenty, then halve that to a shortlist. Lots of debate and discussion follows until a winner is chosen.
Don't they disagree on the outcome?
Frequently. Recently one judge, Carmen Callil, walked out in protest at Phillip Roth winning the Booker's international prize. She said that Roth 'goes on and on about the same subject in every single book.'

Word Watch

Connoisseur
Someone who views themselves as having good taste in a certain area – often food, but it can be applied to art, wine or music. Often a connoisseur might be respected as an expert, but sometimes people might look at their selectiveness as snobbish.

Formulaic
relying on a predictable structure or content. The Mercury prize, for example, is often criticised as always containing an unusual jazz album, a well-known chart-topper, and a grime artist who no-one's heard of.
Prestigious
Something that commands respect and is well-known for recognising exceptional work.

Innovative
Often associated with creativity, something innovative does things in a new way, pushing boundaries in its field.

Favourite
Before major awards, the major betting firms open books to invite bets on who will win. Most people this year put money on PJ Harvey.

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