Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Costa Book of the Year 2009

Having just had one of my short stories rejected by a magazine because ‘It’s just too far-fetched, I’m afraid’ it has come as some surprise to learn that Sebastian Barry has won the £25,000 Costa Prize for his flawed novel The Secret Scripture. Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed most of The Secret Scripture and heartily recommend it. The writing was sublime (you can read my four-star review on The BookBag website here). But I thought the ending was so far-fetched it was, quite frankly, ridiculous. The Costa judges agreed with me. Matthew Parris, the judges’ Chair, said the panel ‘agreed that it was flawed, and almost no one liked the ending, which was almost fatal to its success.’

Last year, the Willesden Herald famously decided not to award a prize in their international short story competition because none of the entries were quite good enough. Their decision caused a storm (especially among some entrants) but surely they were right – if none of the stories were flawless then none of them deserved a prize. So my question is, Should a prize as prestigious as the Costa be awarded to a book that everyone agrees is flawed?

Just a thought.

9 comments:

Eryl Shields said...

I think it must depend on what one means by 'flawed', do our notions of what constitutes flaws change over time? A potter I knew once took me to a Lucy Rie exhibition, I'd never heard of her at the time. He looked at her wonky pots and could only see flaws, he couldn't see what all the fuss was about, yet I saw the most beautiful, fine, elegant porcelain vessels I'd ever laid eyes on.

Prizes, I believe, should be awarded for art, and art pushes boundaries which inevitably results in challenges. Perfection is boring, and also shifting.

The Dotterel said...

But given what Matthew Parris said, it makes you wonder whether it was merely the 'best of a bad bunch'. Equally annoying is the fact that many better novels aren't even up for consideration in competitions like this.

Paul said...

Eryl - I can see your point entirely, and I do agree that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc, etc. But I think, if you read The Secret Scripture, you will see this is a different class of wonky. The problem is that Barry's writing is so sublime, and that 95% of the book is just so 'perfect', that the ending just seems to ruin the whole thing. Imagine Chekhov tying up all the loose ends of one of his stories so that everybody lives happily ever after . . .

Paul said...

Tim - Hi, and thanks for dropping by! I agree that Matthew Parris' honest remarks would make you think The Secret Scripture was the best of a bad bunch - but the rest of the bunch were pretty good (the ones I read, anyway, and I read several of them). I would agree that MOST of Sebastian Barry's book was so good I was certain (as I was reading it) that it would win the Booker, the Costa and everything else going. Until I came to the end. As I said in my BookBag review, I could see why it was shortlisted for the Booker but at the same time I could see why it couldn't have won. I know literary prizes are entirely subjective, but if I were one of the other Costa contenders I think I would be a little, er, fed up . . .

Eryl Shields said...

I'll read it over the weekend and let you know what I think, you've got me utterly intrigued.

Anonymous said...

Hear William Boyd and Alison Kennedy discuss 'flawed masterpieces' here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_7860000/7860113.stm

Mary Witzl said...

I'm one of the people who submitted a story to the Willesden Harold's short story competition last year and I have to go along with their decision, no matter how irritated it made me at the time. I scoured their judging criteria and still wonder where I went wrong, but then I've sent pieces off to agents and competitions in the past, convinced they were okay, only to reread them months or years later and blush to see the flaws I'd managed to miss. And having your story judged 'the best of a bad bunch' is an insult, though if I were Sebastian Barry and had £25,000 in my account, I wonder if I would overlook that scruple...?

Eryl Shields said...

It took me a while, but I have now read it and I see exactly what you mean: it's like Chekhov crossed with Agatha Christie. Or, rather, it seems to be written for a different age. Maybe in a few years time he'll be considered a trailblazer...

Paul said...

I do think Sebastian Barry is an exquisitely good writer, and 95% of The Secret Scripture is breathtakingly good. It's just the ending that spoils it, for me. The ending is breathtaking in an entirely different kind of way.