British literary prizes carry way more weight, respectability, credibility, career-buttressing significance than their musical alter-egos. In fact, said alter-egos carry a good deal of the exact opposite. Seems, in hindsight, a bit of an obvious point to make but it’s actually kind of fascinating and, I reckon, relatively unremarked upon. Hilary Mantel, Don Paterson, fucking McEwan, even that dear man China Mieville can be nominated for and win however many gongs they like and maintain – improve upon, indeed – a full dignity-quota, a generally resounding air of well done old boy. (Mantel’s eye-wateringly problematic face haunting the Guardian Review and Ian’s ever-increasing reputation for turning ‘litfic’ into bellend-ery – or is it the other way around – are obvious sticking-points that deserve to be acknowledged here, yes, but you get the idea.) Give a musician a Brit (lol), an Ivor Novello, a Mercury prize or, worst of all, an NME award (hello Muse! Still stealing the themes from staggeringly well-known orchestral works? You awful cunts) and it’s more than likely I’ll never listen to their shit again. That’s if we were ever listening to it in the first place.
Unless we’re talking PJ Harvey. PJ Harvey can do slash win whatever she goddam likes.
Oh yeah, and if you’re one of those people who were all like, yeah man, Elbow totally deserved that Mercury prize, they’re such a hard-working band and that Garvey guy had a beard way before beard were cool because Elbow aren’t cool, they’re just really hard-working and the Mercury was just a really great reward for how hard they’ve worked: just…no…
Now, there are loads and loads of reasons for this. As Phil discussed earlier on in the week, the financial facet to literary prizes, especially poetry ones, is inextricably tied up with the financial realities of the literary career. Quite simply, poetry awards very often provide the space in which the (yes, of course, arguably) most brilliant poets can continue writing, ideally-speaking full-time. Not so where music is concerned. Badly Drawn Boy going on about how much the 2000 Mercury was going to facilitate more and better Badly Drawn Boy music-making was somewhat undermined (both musically- and financially-speaking) by the appearance of the About A Boy soundtrack two years later. The over-discussed ‘curse of the Mercury’ is sort-of-proof, indeed, that Mercury prizes don’t clear space for brilliant second, third, fourth records – no, they destroy careers. See Miss Dynamite. See Hell’s Kitchen.
Literary prizes are often admirably specific – for poets under 30, for writers who might broadly be defined as flying the flag SF, for lady-novelists (as I daresay they’d still like to be known – am I right? Am I right?). They have serious, not-anonymous, invariably fairly diverse, bloody hardworking judging-panels – as opposed to a scattering of faceless ‘industry experts’. They are frequently open to (if rarely won by…) the unpublished, the not establishment-entrenched – to entries entered anonymously, onto a relatively level playing-field. They are sometimes conceived along lines far more creative than Best Album, Best Song – see, say, the Warwick Prize for Writing, last year centring upon ‘complexity’, next year on ‘colour’, and utilising a creative and democratic nomination process open to all employees (not just academic) and students working at the University of Warwick.
Literary prizes give, at the very least, the impression they’re supporting their mode, and constantly evolving in order to do so. Where music prizes cheapen, stunt, commercialise, ever-imply British musical breadth is at best, tokenistic, at worst non-existent. How many music awards awarded this year have been awarded as a result of a certain artist agreeing to attend the awards ceremony in order to pick up their award? Is Lily Allen really the best pop-songwriter in the land? Really? Reallyreally?
In a year Stephin Merritt released a new record?
I’m not saying the literary system is perfect, obviously. I mean, godsake, Portillo chaired the Booker panel in 2008! And one could very well argue there are far more entry-points into the ‘music-industry’ (vile phrase) than there are into, say, the published ‘poetry scene’ (just as bad) – and that prizes thus have far less of a role to play in the former coase, inevitably. And that bands are only to be half-judged on their albums – less than half perhaps. Where a novelist’s live performance is, let’s face it, a non-issue (much as I like the idea of contemporary Dickens-making-women-faint-by-reading-the-murder-of-Nancy-scene live reading jamborees). Hence the album-award and the novel-award will inevitably have very different respective statuses, in terms of achievement-representation. Then there’s the money thing: whole lot more money in music = less need for prizes. At least, there was, once upon a time… (And possibly that-there ellipses represents the best reason for a new culture of prizes to rebuild goodmusic achievement from the ground up. No monies anymores!)
But consider, for one moment, if an equivalent to the Eric Gregorys (three and a half grand for the best four unreleased unknown-authored full-length demos entered each year) or the Warwick Prize for Writing (fifty grand for the record that most impressively addressed an (arbitrary) intellectual concept, every two years – nominated by bunch of everyones) or even the Faber new poets scheme (creative – rather than sellability-centric – mentorship and EP releases courtesy of a label like, I don’t know, Matador) began to dominate serious music-making and listening. Don’t get me wrong, the best indie labels, producers and whatnot do some wonderful, selfless shit, which achieves similarly anti-consumerist, cerebral ends. But why not this too? Let’s look at last year’s records, crown some Music As Reading literary-musical prizewinners 2009:
The Man Booker
Awarded to: Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs. 25-year career, balanced, music-literate, pop meets challenging, you get the idea.
St. Vincent’s Actor. For being such a talented lady-singer and stuff.
The Arthur C Clarke award
Awarded to: Sunn 0)))’s Monoliths & Dimensions. I wonder if China Mieville likes Sun 0)))…
Prize for Writing (theme – ‘complexity’) Warwick
Awarded to: Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. A record that, bewilderingly, found itself in the US Billboard Top 20. I mean, have you heard it?
The Forward Prize
Awarded to: The Antlers’ Hospice. A record possessed of a very Forward Prize-ish harrowingness.
The T.S. Eliot Prize
Awarded to: Themselves’ CrownsDown. Hiphop would dominate the poetry-style categories, I feel. Especially hiphop as rad as this.
An Eric Gregory
Awarded to: Talons’ for Rustic Bullshit. You won’t be able to find this one on Spotify but I’d really, really recommend buying it here.
If the above doesn’t get you more excited than Speech bloody Debelle winning last year’s Mercury Prize, we might as well not bother being friends anymore.
(To access a Spotify essay-soundtrack-playlist to accompany the above, click here)